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How Cable TV Executives Replaced Voters

With the networks now in control of the debates, unreliable polls are winnowing the field instead of voters.

November 9, 2015

Polls are casting a pall over Tuesday night’s Republican debate.

Subjecting the 15-candidate GOP field to blunt force trauma, Fox Business Network bounced Chris Christie (surging in New Hampshire) and Mike Huckabee (the 2008 Iowa caucus winner) from the main debate stage. Even worse, the network turned Lindsey Graham into an Orwellian un-person by barring the South Carolina senator from even the undercard debate. This poll-propelled decision came just as John McCain (the 2008 Republican nominee) was endorsing Graham in a New Hampshire TV ad.

Fox Business Network seemingly cherry-picked the four national polls that it used in clearing the debate stage. The “Eight Is Enough for Fox” main debate may provide extra TV drama and ratings by giving Donald Trump and Ben Carson more time to preen on camera. But a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, primary voters got to winnow the presidential field rather than cable TV executives.  

In a prior column in May, I pointed out the Catch-22 created by Republican Chairman Reince Priebus’ timorous decision to let the cable TV networks set their own criteria for limiting the size of debates: “The only way to rise in the polls is to do well in the debates. But to participate in the debates, you have to rise in the polls.”

What makes matters far worse is that 2015 has provided us with dramatic evidence that election surveys have become about as reliable as divining rods.

In the Israeli, British and, most recently, Canadian national elections, pollsters were grotesquely wrong about either the result or the margin. The same thing happened in last week’s Kentucky gubernatorial election, which was won handily by the supposedly trailing Republican candidate Matt Bevin. The Kentucky polling proved so unreliable that the Lexington Herald-Leader, which sponsors the Bluegrass Poll, announced after the election that the paper had fired its outside pollster.  

A major reason why polling has fallen off the precipice is a dramatic drop in the response rate to telephone surveys from 60 percent during the 1980s to single digits today. Adding to the problem is that younger voters, especially, only use cell phones, which legally cannot be automatically dialed like land lines. The decline in the media business also has prompted many newspapers to hire the cheapest — rather than best — polling firms. (In the current New Yorker, Jill Lepore smartly surveys the woeful state of polling).

Sadly, the reliability of polls has hit rock bottom at just the moment when they have more political influence than pioneering survey-taker George Gallup could have ever imagined. The debates are only one example of our poll-propelled politics. Equally alarming is the way that the Political Prediction Industry has trumped everything else in the 2016 campaign.

As someone who has been covering presidential politics since 1980, I cannot think of a time when so much effort was spent handicapping who was going to win the White House—and so little time was spent analyzing what he or she might do when they got to the Oval Office. Mouthing off on Morning Joe about who will corral the Republican nomination is undeniably more fun than lassoing the details in the GOP contenders’ tax plans. But the virtue of substantive reporting is that it might help voters clarify their decisions, while glib horserace verdicts go under the heading of “often wrong, but never in doubt.”

Last spring, the oft-repeated Conventional Wisdom was that only one of three Republicans would be standing triumphant amid the balloon drop at the Cleveland Convention. Even though the GOP could reckon their candidates by the dozens, it simply had to be Scott Walker (who has since dropped out), Jeb Bush (who is currently depicted as flat-lining) or Marco Rubio.

These days, the party line has dramatically shifted. In Sunday’s Politico, the influential Mike Allen summarized the current DC insider analysis: "The GOP race will come down to a Rubio-[Ted] Cruz final, with Rubio favored. The logic is that if Trump and Carson deflate, evangelicals will go to Cruz and everyone else will go to Rubio, and there’s more 'everyone else.'”

Yes, 2016 could play out that way. But recall what has happened in the last quarter of a century when voters were finally allowed to make their preferences known in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries:

  • In 1992, Bill Clinton—reeling from the Gennifer Flowers and draft scandals—put himself back on track for the Democratic nomination with a surprising second-place finish in New Hampshire.
  • In 1996, ultra-conservative columnist Pat Buchanan defeated establishment favorite Bob Dole by 2,000 votes in the New Hampshire primary.
  • In 2000, John McCain, running against the Bush dynasty, swept the New Hampshire GOP primary with nearly half the vote. George W. Bush was on the ropes until he made a dramatic comeback in the South Carolina primary.
  • Even though Democrat Howard Dean led in national polling in November 2003, he collapsed in the early 2004 Iowa caucuses (prompting the late-night Dean scream) and then in the New Hampshire primary.
  • Barack Obama averaged an 8-percentage point lead in all the polls in the days before the January 2008 New Hampshire primary. Hillary Clinton gained 10 points in the final hours to force Obama into a protracted fight for the nomination that stretched into June.
  • Ignored by the press and mired in single digits in most polls, Rick Santorum surged out of nowhere to win the 2012 Iowa caucuses. And then Newt Gingrich, dismissed as a Banquo’s Ghost candidate, scrambled everything by winning the South Carolina primary in a landslide.

Most of these upsets were not predicted even a week in advance. We are still more than 90 days from the Iowa caucuses — and yet it has become journalistically unfashionable to admit (as I do) that you have no idea who will win the GOP nomination. The most dispiriting aspect of the media’s coverage of the 2016 campaign is that too many pundits appear to regard voters as an annoyance getting in the way of their premature green room verdicts.

It’s almost enough to prompt me to channel John Lennon and start singing, “All we are saying is give the voters a chance.” 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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