January 10th, 2008 | Uncategorized

Not a good day to be a pollster — or a journalist

NEW HAVEN, Conn., 11:22 p.m. — In an interview with the pollster John Zogby, the comedian Jon Stewart is discussing on “The Daily Show” the failure of the polls in New Hampshire.

Zogby said the polls were proven wrong because so many voters did not decide for whom to vote until election day. Stewart asked him whether pollsters could have predicted that in advance. Zogby replied that while only a few percent of people polled said they were “undecided,” many were only “soft” supporters of Obama or Clinton, and that should have been a sign that the race was far from over.

Zogby said that point might not have been stressed enough to the media when the polls were announced over the past few days.

“Do the numbers just come in and [journalists] just go, ’41 – 28, my God!’?” Stewart asked incredulously.

The crowd laughed, and the interview moved on. But, Stewart was right! For better or for worse, that’s exactly how it happens.

Milling around at Saint Anselm College on Saturday night before the televised debates, a Washington correspondent for a major newspaper tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, did you hear the news?” he asked excitedly, barely able to contain himself.

No, I told him. What’s up?

“CNN just put out a new poll, just a minute ago,” he said. “They’re tied, 33-33!”

He went off to write a blog entry about it for his newspaper, and so did I. Throughout the night, you could hear that same conversation repeated between scores of other reporters, too. Many other reporters dashed off to send along similar write-ups.

Here, by the way, is where we got our information about the poll. Note how Stewart is more or less correct — the overall numbers are highlighted in the story, and that’s about it (unless you are a statistics major and want to venture an analysis of the raw polling data).

— Thomas Kaplan