Hoping distortions influence reality

Hoping distortions influence reality

- in Fitzsimon File

The Civitas Institute issued a press release this week heralding its latest flash poll showing Mitt Romney 10 points ahead of President Obama in North Carolina.

That’s absurd on its face of course. Virtually every poll has showed Romney and Obama neck and neck in North Carolina for several months. The latest survey from Public Policy Polling found Obama ahead by one point after the conventions.

The crosstabs provided with the Civitas poll showed Romney with 30 percent of the African-American vote, an absurdly high total. The PPP poll showed Romney with 8 percent support among African-Americans and even that might be a little high.

No one, including Mitt Romney, believes the Republican presidential ticket will receive the support of 30 percent of African-Americans in North Carolina.

The poll is basically nonsense, but Civitas released it anyway and it was picked up by media outlets. A story on a National Review blog summarized the Civitas and PPP polls as “A Tale of Two Polls,” never mentioning the widely skewed results among African-American voters in the Civitas survey. A few mainstream media outlets mentioned it too without providing any perspective on the warped findings.

The release by Civitas about the presidential race came a few days after the group claimed a flash poll showed that Republican Pat McCrory held a 16 point lead over Democrat Walter Dalton in the gubernatorial race.

That poll showed McCrory receiving almost of a third of the African-American vote too, which no one including McCrory believes he will receive.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter that a distorted horse race poll from a far-right advocacy group is reported as credible by the mainstream media. After all, the election is the only poll that really counts.

But poll results can actually influence the race by galvanizing supporters or discouraging a candidate’s base. They can take on a life of their own by shaping the conventional wisdom that becomes the dominate media narrative in a race. They can affect campaign contributions as many people want to curry favor with a clear frontrunner.

And that’s the point of the Civitas survey, like all their surveys. It’s right-wing advocacy by polling.

Civitas chief Frances De Luca respond to comments on the group’s website questioning the poll findings by saying that those were the numbers reported to them by Survey USA, the company that conducted the flash poll and that if Civitas was “going to cook the numbers, they would not look like this.”

But Civitas could have simply refused to report the numbers because they were so obviously misleading. What if Survey USA had said Romney was ahead by 20 percent in North Carolina and receiving 60 percent of the African-American vote, would Civitas merely issued a release about those numbers too?

Or what if Survey USA reported that Obama was ahead by 15 points in the state, would Civitas have rushed to issue a press release with that headline?

If you want to be taken seriously as a polling organization, at some point you have to rely on your judgment and common sense and refrain from using obviously distorted findings.

But if you are a shill for the Republican Party and have an arm of your group that produces negative attack ads against Democratic candidates, you just send out the news release about the findings of the absurdly pro-Romney and pro-McCrory polls, issue a weak disclaimer, and hope for the headlines in the mainstream media that advance your agenda and your candidates’ campaigns.

Civitas not only releases highly questionable horse race polls of course, they also produce monthly issue polls that conveniently always seem to find North Carolinians support most of the group’s hard right Tea Party agenda.

Those issue polls also often find their way into mainstream news coverage too, distorting the public policy debate by misrepresenting the views of the majority of the voters in the state.

Maybe that’s the silver lining in this week’s absurd presidential poll, that reporters and editors will finally think twice before citing the ideologically-driven Civitas survey as anything other than what it is at its core—right-wing propaganda masquerading as a legitimate reflection of public opinion.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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