Accuracy of polls, TV news in focus at councillors’ discussion

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Anne Danehy speaks to the Mass Councillors' Association at 2017 MMA Annual MeetingThe fault lies not in our polls, but in ourselves – and our television news.
This was the message from a public opinion researcher and the managing partner of the State House News Service to councillors and aldermen from across the state during the annual business meeting of the Massachusetts Municipal Councillors’ Association on Jan. 21.
“Polls will never be exact,” said Anne Danehy, the owner of Strategic Opinion Research and a professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. “We’re a social science, not a hard science. We’re dealing with human subjects.”
During a panel discussion about the outcome of the 2016 election, Danehy pointed out that the polls indicated a very close race that Donald Trump could win.
Just before the election, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Trump at 43.6 percent and Clinton at 46.8 percent, Danehy said, and Trump won 46 percent of the popular vote nationally to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent – within the polling margin of error. In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, which Trump won, 48.2 percent to 47.5 percent, Real Clear Politics was reporting an average of Clinton with 46.2 percent support and Trump with 44 percent, again within the margin of error.
Craig Sandler of State House News added that polls only measure how likely things are to happen and cannot prevent an unlikely thing from happening, something that the news media often fail to make clear. He mentioned the New York Times’ Upshot, its data analysis site, which said that the odds of Clinton losing were equivalent to an NFL kicker missing a short field goal.
“I’ve watched people miss field goals all the time,” Sandler said. “What happened was the polls were exactly on. … If it’s close, you watch the guy or the ballot questioning that’s gaining at the end.”
Danehy said there was too much polling going on too early, which measures name recognition more than the attitudes and motivations of voters.
Polls showed that undecided voters were more turned off by Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment than her email server investigation or hacked Democratic National Committee emails. On the Trump side, undecideds were most turned off by Trump’s lack of charitable contributions.
While polling was generally accurate and is improving, Danehy warned against focusing on the “horse race” instead of voters’ day-to-day lives, because stances on certain issues have a negligible impact when compared to the issues that affect voters personally.
Sandler said Trump spoke to those issues, while providing the simple, entertaining content that television news thrives on today. He said the president was able to leverage his experience as a businessman, a television producer, and a television personality.
“I think he took the accurate polls and listened to the issues people really cared about and spoke to that, blending his own genius for entertainment and politics,” he said.
Sandler lamented the unsophisticated approach to complex issues taken by television news outlets, which lends itself to Trump’s showmanship. While print media “did a pretty good job,” and reported about falsehoods stated by Trump, television and talk radio “does not get rewarded for going through issues with any sophistication,” Sandler said.
“The time has come for us to rethink social studies education about news consumption,” he said, adding that he’s considering forbidding his 12-year-old daughter from watching television news.
“I think I’m at the point: No cigarettes, no TV news,” he said to laughs.
The MMCA meeting was held during the MMA Annual Meeting at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.