media manipulation and “the Big Mo”

I made a presentation in a City Hall committee room the other day.  It was received graciously, despite obvious skepticism from some in attendance.  An earnest and courteous discussion ensued.  There was agreement to disagree.

Is this the Tory effect?  I truly hope so.  It might be a coincidence, but I prefer to think that everyone’s stress and incredulity levels have dropped to a tolerable level since defeat of the Blonde Menace.

My mood has mellowed too.  The mendacity of campaign rhetoric and reporting has subsided at last.  Constructive debate has begun.  It’s time for me to get over myself.  This is my final word on media manipulation of polling numbers and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Tory’s election…

An occasional reader of this blog told me that I’ve overstated the influence of media-hyped poll results.  I took this seriously because it’s hard to be objective.  How influential was the media in the positioning of Tory as the great white hope for Ford-purging voters?

There’s no doubt that poll results were dramatically misstated in headlines to this effect in late summer and early fall.  Nor can there have been any doubt about the impact this had on strategic voters.

The reader conceded that media influence had made a difference, but didn’t believe it had made “the” difference.  He said it this way:  “Even without the polls and the media, I think the guy who was winning then would still be the guy in office now.”

He’s right.  There’s no proving that the media did or didn’t determine the outcome, even if we can agree that influence was exerted.

But his challenge affirms my conclusion.  We should be confident that polls weren’t misrepresented to the benefit of one candidate over another.  Are we?

If we can agree that polling trends were misrepresented, benefiting one candidate over another, then my point is made.  We’re just quibbling about the degree of this problem if we’re debating whether or not it resulted in a Tory victory.

The fact that we can have this quibble is reason to take it seriously.  We know that poll-based headlines glossed over the difference between changes in voter intention and changes in polling methods.  We also know that critical reports of surging Tory support simply didn’t add up.  Do we really need to know more before we  admit that this undermines an election’s integrity?

There are so many things influencing the electability of a candidate that it’s almost impossible to isolate and quantify the effect of a single factor.  However one factor the media likes to talk about in the media is momentum.  “The big Mo” magnifies support earned on merit.  It builds on itself until it’s difficult to stop.  Every campaign seeks to propel itself ahead by propagating the myth that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.  Nothing builds momentum like repetition of the word itself.

What the media doesn’t acknowledge is the extent to which they generate a candidate’s momentum.   Excited repetition of the momentum story by newscasters adds to whatever actual momentum a candidate has gained by campaigning well with actual voters.  The morning papers are plagiarized by the drive-time radio hosts throughout the day, and the lead story is repeated on the evening news.  Every day that the media stays on the story of a candidate’s apparent progress, the effect is compounded.

Polls are the mechanism by which the media measures momentum, which is why polls influence election outcomes.  Momentum stories compound otherwise inconsequential success.  They are the means by which the media heralds victory for otherwise ordinary candidates.

After too many tiresome diatribes about data sampling and analysis, I rest my case.  For now.

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