What moves voters? Do candidates get more coverage because they're polling well, or do they poll well because they get more coverage? This election season, On the Media is teaming up with the data news site FiveThirtyEight to look track the push and pull between polling, media attention, and public interest. Brooke and Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight's editor-in-chief, launch the collaboration and go through two very different models of media influence: Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
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BROOKE: For months now, Donald Trump has informed us that the polls suggest, affirm, nay prove, that he’s a winnah!
TRUMP: leading all the polls, getting the biggest crowds, everybody is going crazy.
I’m doing well, I’m leading every poll the little ones. The big ones.
And every week, I go up up up up up
BROOKE: But this week, for the first time in over 100 days, the Republican field had a new leader: Ben Carson, topping several Iowa polls and a few national match-ups. And that’s shaking Trumps faith a little bit.
TRUMP: I generally believe in polls. The things about these polls: they’re all so different. They’re coming from all over the lot where one guy is up here, somebody else is up there, you see swings of 10 and 12 points. So right now it’s not very scientific.
BROOKE: Yes, Donald, polls are stupid -- at this stage of the election. But as Nate Silver, famed poll-cruncher and editor-in-chief of the data news site Fivethirtyeight has observed, polls -- no matter how unscientific -- do fuel media narratives. And those narratives can affect voters, and thus influence polls. It’s a question of which comes first: the media egg or the chicken poll. To find the answer to the question, On the Media and Nate’s 538 hereby begin a collaboration to track the push and pull between polling, media coverage, and public interest in candidates. Nate, welcome to our launch party of two.
SILVER: Aw, thank you Brooke. [laughter]
BROOKE: So, do candidates get more coverage because they're polling well or do they poll well because they get more coverage? And there's more than enough polling and media frenzy a year out from 2016 to make this a compelling question
SILVER: I've never seen this much attention paid to polls so early in the campaign, and now it's October, it's a little bit more appropriate, but this was going on in June and July. In fact the last time we had a candidate who was leading the polls at this point in the race and won was 16 years ago in 1999, Al Gore and George Bush.
BROOKE: These things are going to be swinging wildly for a while. For the purposes of our collaboration, what kind of metrics will you be using to help us track whether the rises and the falls of candidates were being pushed first by public interest and picked up by the media or the other way around?
SILVER: We have a partnership already with Google because Google can track news hits, both how much candidates are covered and also the tone of coverage and also search traffic, who's searching for whom during the debates. And it's turned out that in a couple of the GOP debates so far, search traffic proved a better guide to what comes after than kind of the media talk about the debates. Ben Carson for example at the first debate you heard a lot of the press say oh he kind of was a non entity, he's too soft spoken, but after Trump, I think he got the second most search traffic, and lo and behold, he has moved up in the polls.
BROOKE: Now, for pretty much the entirety of Trump's lead, his polling success has been attributed to media attention, specifically the inability of the press to resist talking about him. Stephen Colbert likened this to binging on Oreos.
Colbert; I've got to exercise some discipline. Look, you don't own me. And I don't need to play tape of you to have a successful TV show.
SILVER: Over the past several months about 60% of all media coverage of the GOP primary has been about Donald Trump. However, if you looked at Google search traffic --
BROOKE: Which is your principal metric of measuring public opinion --
SILVER: -- public interest. He gets 70% of the search traffic. Weeks where there is a debate, where other candidates get equal stage, that's declined a little bit, but the public drives some of this, too.
BROOKE: So Trump may be difficult to track that way - it's media coverage, it's public interest fueling media coverage, which then fuels public interest and so on. But it's the opposite case with Ben Carson, right?
SILVER: That's right. In this case, the Google searches came before the media spikes for Carson. so i think it's hard to put Carson and Trump in the same category.
BROOKE: Many Democrats have argued that the media are suppressing public interest in Bernie Sanders by vastly undercovering him.
SILVER: There was a lag. I think there were points early in the race where people were searching for Bernie Sanders and more importantly saying they would consider voting for Bernie Sanders and didn't get much coverage. But I think that complaint is a month or two out of date. When you write articles about Bernie Sanders, they're as popular as articles about Donald Trump. People are really into listening and reading about Bernie Sanders and so when organizations figured that out, then that changes their behavior some. He's now kind of immortalized as Saturday Night Live icon, has kind of become a part of the culture, so I don't buy that now for the past few weeks, Bernie Sanders has been under-covered. Now you're going to have several Democratic debates where it's all going to be kind of on Bernie Sanders term, about policy issues that don't ordinarily get a hearing.
BROOKE: One thing that we're going to be talking about is something that's called "discovery, scrutiny, decline." This is the pattern whereby candidates may surge, then the press start asking questions about him or her, and then they start sinking.
SILVER: So this is a term that was invented to describe a number of bubbles that occurred in 2011 and 2012, so there were literally 4 or 5 candidates, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich twice, Rick Santorum, there was a lot of excitement initially, then the news coverage turned, they were covered more critically and then they declined after 4 to 6 weeks. So usually this happens when a candidate's near term polling is out of line with what we call the fundamentals right? where you're kind of scratching your head and saying i can't figure out why so many people think that candidate is so great. You could argue it's the case with Carson - his support is not very solid, meaning that people say "if you ask me right now, I'll vote for Ben Carson, but I haven't really made my mind up." If you had polls by the way that we're honest right now? It would say 70% undecided, 6% trump, 5% Rubio, 4% Carson -- that's probably a more accurate representation of how many people have really made up their mind so far.
BROOKE: That's why we keep saying polls are stupid! Primary polls are stupid!
SILVER: One thing people don't realize about polls now is that there's a lot of processing that takes place to the data. So if you just call random landlines, you're going to get a lot of older, white women to answer the phone. Young latino men don't have landlines. Pollsters are aware of that so what they'll do is say "well we don't have enough latinos and so every latino i get, I'm gonna multiply them by 4, and every white woman i get, I'm going to cut her vote in half." At some point the massaging fails to work and you have polls that can be quite inaccurate. Now, in the US, the polls in the aggregate have still been pretty good. If you looked at 538 we take a weighted average of polls, and put more weight on the more accurate polls. That did pretty well, it called just about every state right ---
BROOKE: Yeah, yeah, we know - you're clairvoyant.
SILVER: However -- No, but I'm not! We're terrified also about the long term direction of polls. There have been massive polling errors in the UK and in Israel and Greece, in Scotland and many other Westernized democracies. They're using the same basic techniques, so the fact that we've had these errors elsewhere is a sign that we could have trouble in the US sooner or later too.
BROOKE: And so, from what we can tell, from the data we have, the media had a role in creating Donald trump's prominence, but none in creating Ben Carson's --
BROOKE: So next time we talk, Nate, we're going to see if we can get closer to an answer to the chicken and the egg question. And I think that we may find a different variation of that answer for every candidate we look at.
SILVER: Mhm. And the answer can be both, and it can be self reinforcing. I think trump has realized that as long as the hype cycle continues and you stay in motion, the media likes objects in motion instead of objects at rest. So Donald Trump is always in motion.
BROOKE: Nate, thank you very much.
SILVER: Thank you.
BROOKE: Nate Silver is the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.. Their election coverage is at FiveThirtyEight.com/election. And you can find their podcasts on iTunes.