Are the media too poll-obsessed?

CBS News

(CBS News) Did you hear about the Gallup poll that shows Mitt Romney got no immediate bounce from picking Paul Ryan as his running mate? Or the Public Policy Polling survey that has Obama leading by three points in Ohio? Or the Purple Strategies poll that shows Romney with a slight edge on Obama in Florida, Virginia and Ohio?

Joel Benenson, who tests the public opinion for the Obama campaign, thinks there's an "obsession" with polling this election that makes poll reporting excessive and oftentimes inaccurate.

"Public polls can serve a purpose, but it has got to be limited," Benenson said. "There is no value in reporting the poll of the day, just as there is the flavor of the day in an ice-cream shop."

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The White House's top pollster, who also led Obama's polling team in 2008, said he noticed there are more public polls than ever before and nearly every news organization has its own polling team. The result, he said, is too many conflicting reports.

"One will be shooing Obama up 9 points," Beneson said, referring to a CNN poll last week. "another [will have] 4 points ... Rasmussen always has Romney up."

Reporting on these various polls might be easy, Benenson said, but he wishes journalists would take into account there are often conflicting results.

It's a sentiment also shared by top Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who said despite his many differences with Joel, they "generally agree on baseball, and on this topic." Public polls he added, will be a lot more accurate after the conventions when the companies switch from registered to likely voters.

"The hunger for the box score -- who's ahead and who's behind -- serves the appetite of the media much more than it serves the needs of the voter," he said.

Of course, there will always be "good" polls and "bad" polls - the National Council on Public Polls breaks down the more reliable surveys from the unscientific ones based on who funds the poll, how those surveyed were chosen, how many people were interviewed, etc. The fact that there's been an increase in the number of political polls out there requires readers to practice more discretion.

This is also a difficult time in the election for pollsters, as most people don't start really paying attention to the election until the conventions and Labor Day. Romney's pick of Paul Ryan for his running mate might still be little too fresh for it to really sink in with voters.

Factor in a poll's margin of error -- the Gallup poll, for example, has Romney/Ryan at 47 percent and Obama/Biden at 45 percent with a margin of error of plus or minus three points -- the race is far too close to get a really accurate sense of where the general public is leaning at this very moment.

Before readers get frustrated and skim over the latest poll headlines until the day before Election Day, CBS polling director Sarah Dutton would like to let them know the surveys are about much more than numbers -- it's worthwhile to note the theme or message.

"Our polls are as much about how voters view the candidates, the issues they care about, and why they support their chosen candidate as they are about who's ahead," said Dutton.

Dutton leads CBS News' own polling operations, which published a poll with Quinnipiac and The New York Times earlier this month that found women helped propel Obama in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

To get a sense of who would win at the moment, however, people will have to depend on public polls. Neither Benenson nor Newhouse would reveal their own data and conclusions from the trail. But Benenson did say that Election Day could be a real nail-biter.

"We said all along this is going to be a competitive close race, contested down to the wire," he said, adding it was definitely close in the battleground states.

  • Sara Dover

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