Why I'm not writing a story about your poll
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
It's already happened a few times this year. A campaign or a political party has hired a polling firm to conduct a poll, and found a way to spin the results into a favorable story for their candidate. Immediately, I'm getting calls from the communications staff, being bombarded with emails, and my Twitter feed is filled with tweets about how candidate X is either winning, gaining or within the margin of error.
Now, let me ask you something: When was the last time that you saw a candidate make an announcement that said, "BIG NEWS: Recent poll shows we're definitely losing, just as we long suspected!" You've never seen one? Me either. And that's why I'm not going to write a story about your poll.
Fortunately for me, The Associated Press agrees, and recently revised the AP Stylebook to give reporters a really good excuse to just say no when we get yelled at by campaign spokespeople because we're really just not into their polling data. According to the Stylebook's new entry: The mere existence of a poll is not enough to make it news. Do not feel obligated to report on a poll or survey simply because it meets AP’s standards.
Poll results that seek to preview the outcome of an election must never be the lead, headline or single subject of any story. Pre-election horse race polling can and should inform reporting on political campaigns, but no matter how good the poll or how wide a candidate’s margin, results of pre-election polls always reflect voter opinion before ballots are cast. Voter opinions can change before Election Day, and they often do.
I underlined the sentences above because in the past few days, I've been questioned by campaigns, and I've seen journalists criticized by spokespeople for not writing stories about the mere existence of polls, and because they didn't lead a story with the results of their candidate's poll.
This might blow your mind, but there is literally a candidate running for office in South Carolina, who tweeted the following, last week: We recently got a poll back that says we are within 6 points of defeating (our opponent). People are excited to bring much-needed change to our communities and to Washington. Donate today to help narrow that 6-point gap even more. Now, when I saw the tweet, I giggled and moved on. But then something strange (yes, stranger than that tweet) happened. Some people started tweeting at me, telling me I should be writing a story about the poll. Which poll? The one they "recently got back," of course. This gets better. When another reporter did reach out to them to ask them from where they received this polling information, they refused to reveal it. At this point, I should have just hit mute, but I engaged one of my followers and explained why this is not news. He's smart, and understood. But c'mon guys. Really? I'm just supposed to believe you "recently got a poll," like I recently found a $20 bill lying on the ground? Let's say that I wrote about your stork-delivered poll as though it came from a legit source and got all of my readers to jump on your propaganda bandwagon. And then your opponent sent a tweet that they ALSO "recently got back" a poll saying they were beating you by 50 points. Simply put, I don't have time to play those games. No reporter does.
Even if you are willing to reveal the source of your poll, it still probably isn't going to be news. And if it is, I'm going to add it as background information in a larger story - much like a reporter whom I greatly respect did recently. A campaign paid to have a poll conducted, made a PR pitch about the results, and then accused this reporter of "burying the lede" because they didn't lead their story with it. The campaign should be counting their lucky stars that a reporter of his ilk would have even bothered to add it to his story. And guess what? Later in the day, the spokesperson for the opposing campaign announced that they had a poll debunking the other poll. I literally laughed out loud when I saw it.
So, look. I get how all of this works. You have to do what you have to do to keep momentum going and to gain positive press. But if you start criticizing reporters when we don't buy into the propaganda, then you're going to be in for a long, frustrating campaign. So, take it easy, tweet until your heart's content, and be happy if we include it in our stories. Even if it's in the last paragraph of a larger piece.
With that said, if an independent poll that meets AP standards comes out in your favor, I very-well may write about it. Or ... I might not.
Because if 2016 taught us anything, it's that, the old cliche, "the only poll that matters, is on election day," is true.