Push Polling and Nate Silver

Nate Silver has become a modern political hero after his groundbreaking site fivethirtyeight.com provided clear, consistent and accurate predictions of the 2008 presidential and congress races.

Recently he took on John Ziegler, a failed right wing radio show host turned documentary film maker for enlisting Zogby to do what he considered a push poll. Here’s an interview he did with Ziegler.

Now, Ziegler comes from the talk radio world where controversy is the way you fill your pockets with money, so in some ways I feel like I’m feeding the troll. But I think Nate Silver missed the mark here and ended up playing Ziegler’s game. He really should have done some more due diligence, and ultimately should have played it differently.

I’ve been involved in more than a handful of studies, and I agree with John Zogby that this isn’t a push poll. It’s clearly asking biased questions that test knowledge of dubious facts, but I agree that it’s not meant to change people’s opinions or affect their answers one way or another.

Though Ziegler is incredibly douchy about how he’s handling it in the media, he claims he commissioned this poll for the purpose of measuring how the media has distorted and emphasized irrelevant information and buried stories that citizens should be concerned about.

But there is obviously an agenda here. He clearly believes that Obama won the election because of that distorted coverage and that people who voted for Obama were misinformed about both candidates. He has stated that he doesn’t believe a poll of McCain voters would yield the same results.

Which of course they wouldn’t. The list of questions clearly focuses on “negative” facts about republicans that were widely discussed in the media, and “negative” facts about liberals that were obscure, or poorly worded to disguise their meaning.

Zogby is careful not to defend the questions asked, undoubtedly because he knows they are intended to yield a particular result.

I’d like to step through the questions and give you my take.

1. Before this past election, which political party controlled both houses of congress?

This is a fair question, and I don’t think it reflects bias, but it’s easy to see why people would answer republican, which 36.5 percent did. Republicans controlled (though sometimes only with the VP as deciding vote) both the house and senate from 1995 until 2006. For many of the respondents, this is the majority of their adult lives. And given the laws that have come from congress in the two years since democrats regained the majority, one could be excused for thinking it was still a republican controlled congress.

2. Which candidate could not say how many houses they own? Negative to republicans

A fair question asked in a straight forward way. Also one that I would expect that everyone would know as it received a lot of media coverage. Which Ziegler would say proves his point. But one could certainly claim this is relevant given that McCain was claiming that Obama was an elite celebrity who was out of touch with the common people.

3. Which candidate said they could see Russia from their house? Negative to republicans

This is what people call a “trick” question. Palin didn’t say she could see Russia from her house, she said you could see Russia from some parts of Alaska. Ziegler smugly says this was to test the Tina Fey effect, who said this while performing a satire of Palin. If you were to ask me, it indicates no such thing. When being asked these questions on the phone, people aren’t paying attention to details like that, they’re making a conceptual connection. And conceptually the answer is correct. But Ziegler is counting this as a right answer even if he feels it’s wrong. Again, this topic got a ton of coverage so nothing surprising here.

4. Which candidate had to quit a previous political campaign because they were found to have plagiarized a speech. Negative to democrats

So you’ll notice as we head into the “negative to democrats” arena, the weasel words start. Biden gave up his 1988 run for the presidency after reporters accused him of adopting a large part of his stump speech from Neil Kinnock, and failing to attribute it in some appearances. There were also some other plagiarism gaffes that Slate documents here.

I say weasel words here because this sentence uses two particular phrases that bring to mind specific ideas. “had to quit” and “found to have”. The question makes it seem like Biden was brought before a court, and ordered to abandon his campaign after his was found guilty of plagiarism. In reality, Biden was shamed by the media of the time into giving up after they detailed his generous lifting from other’s speeches. The majority of people gave no answer, but of those who did answer the majority of people were right.

But you’ll also note there are no questions about republicans that refer to events that happened 20 years ago.

5. Which candidate won their first election by getting all of their opponents kicked off the ballot? Negative democrat

This is of course referring to Barack Obama’s 1996 (12 years ago) race for state senate when he disqualified his opponents in the democratic primaries by challenging their petition signatures.

Here again are weasel words. He won the election for the seat because no republican ran against him in the election. He won the primary by challenging the legitimacy of their signatures which they were required to gather in a specific way, which they didn’t.

Of course we are not asked about any dirty tricks McCain may have played during his numerous senate races over the years.

Zeigler is implicitly making a statement that this is relevant information to the election, (because Obama stole that election on a technicality and it goes against his “new politics stance”) which of course it isn’t (This was the democratic primary against someone who had already vacated the seat to run for the house, and a bunch of other folks who barely had enough signatures to get on the ballot as it was.) and as a result it got no media attention outside the far right press which was looking for reasons to discredit him. They never mention that he ran unopposed for actual senate election or that he went on to easily win both the primaries and the elections in 1998 and 2002.

6. Which candidate wore clothes that their political party reportedly spent $150,000 on? Negative republican

This of course was widely reported, and Ziegler is here implying that it was irrelevant information. Which is a dubious claim considering that Palin was running explicitly on a platform of reduced spending and getting rid of government waste. It was both current and relevant as her claim to being a maverick was essentially her only credential for the office. Obviously everyone knew the answer to this.

7. Which candidate currently has a pregnant teenage daughter? Negative Republican

Again, a recent new event, and one that was relevant. Sarah was running on a family values campaign and opposed sex education and abortion. She also hid it from the public for the first few weeks after she was announced. It’s reasonable to hold her daughter up as an antithetical outcome to her stated beliefs. Everyone knew this as well.

8. Which candidate said that Obama would be tested in his first six months as president by a generated international crisis. Negative Democrat

Biden said this at a fund raiser in October. While this is recent, it’s hard to see how it’s relevant. This got almost no coverage. I’m not really sure what Ziegler was trying to prove here other than that Biden says stupid crap, especially when you take it out of context. There’s also the fact that both Hillary and McCain said Obama would be tested in the presidency and questioned his ability to handle it. The only distinguishing language is “generated international crisis” and it’s ridiculous to expect people to remember that.

9. Which candidate claimed to have campaigned in 57 states? Negative democrat

This was of course Obama. And he of course meant 47 states and simply misspoke. How Ziegler thinks this is actually relevant to the election and deserved more media coverage is beyond me. Why would anyone expect people to know trivia like this?

10. Which candidate said their policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket? Negative democrat

The correct answer to this question is “None”, but Ziegler thinks Obama said this. He of course did not. He said that a cap and trade system should be put in place that would bankrupt individuals who want to operate dirty coal plants. Most answered McCain on this one, largely because he pretty much agrees with Obama.

11. Which candidate said that government should redistribute wealth. Negative Democrat

This is another distorted question, as Obama actually said

“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re gonna be better off if you’re gonna be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

But either way, this got a ton of press coverage and everyone pretty much knew the answer.

12. Which candidate started their political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground? Negative Democrat

This is another bullshit question which implies that the radical ideals of the weather underground were the foundation of Obama’s political career. But it’s also a bullshit question because this was widely reported and beat to death. Had the question been: which candidate was reported to have connections with former Weather Underground member William (Bill) Ayers who some consider to be a domestic terrorist? Everyone would have gotten it right. One has to wonder why they wouldn’t mention the names of the members in question.

So it should go without saying that this study has some serious problems if you’re trying to test the hypothesis that the media was minimizing significant negative democratic points and accentuating insignificant republican points.

Only 4 negative Republican questions were asked, while 8 negative Democrat ones were.

All of the negative republican points are contemporary examples that received significant coverage.

There were no questions asking about Troopergate, the Keating 5 or savings and loans scandals, or John McCain’s poor academic or military careers.

There were no question about Sarah’s attitudes toward taking government earmarks for the bridge to nowhere. No question about whether or not Sarah Palin sold the Murkowski jet on ebay. We got no obscure questions about how republicans won or conducted elections from ten or twenty years ago or obtuse language to confuse the respondent.

Obama endured substantial negative media attention throughout the campaign that Obama supporters would readily recall. He was often challenged on his qualifications for office, questioning of his religious beliefs and associations with reverend Wright, his comments about people clinging to god and their guns because they’re bitter, his stance on diplomacy in the middle east and numerous other issues. And if you’d like to ask about ridiculous crap, how about “What is Obama’s middle name”, “terrorist fist jab”, “not wearing american flag pin”, or “won’t say the pledge of allegiance”

Ziegler got exactly the answers he wanted, because he asked the questions specifically to gather the result. It’s a meaningless data set, but it’s technically not a push poll. Had Ziegler wanted to do an honest study, he certainly could have, but that’s not what he’s looking for here. Ziegler wants a data set that he can hold up as proof of the media’s bias, and he knows that for most people, simply having a statistic is as good as science in most people’s minds. Those like me, who question the methodology or questions will be written off as far left wing crack pots who can’t stand when hard data doesn’t go their way.

Had Ziegler really been interested in the subject of media bias, he could have checked any of a number of rigorous media studies conducted by people who actually know how to do this work like this study (PDF LINK) published in the Journal of Communication. Serious studies of the media show there’s pretty much zero bias.

Of course, underlying Ziegler’s hypothesis that the media is distorting our view of the candidates is his assumption that these distorted images are leading to actual voting behavior. He of course asks no questions about whether or not negative coverage of either candidate drove them to vote for Obama over McCain.

Despite widespread acknowledgement that our tanking economy was the number one issue in this election and that by and large people believed that Obama had a better plan to fix things than McCain, somehow there still exists this conservative fantasy world in which the only reason McCain lost was because of unfair media coverage. Incredible.

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