Beltway Press Loves To Cover Polling, Except When It's Hillary's

Big Leads Make For Boring Storylines

How long will the press remain allergic to Hillary Clinton polling data?

It's weird, right? For decades, pundits and reporters have worshiped at the altar of public polling, using results as tangible proof that certain political trends are underway, as well as to keep track of campaign season fluctuations. And that's even truer in recent years with the rise of data journalism. Crunching the political numbers has been elevated to a new and respected art form.

But that newsroom trend seems to be losing out to another, more powerful force as the 2016 cycle gears up. No longer viewing their job as reporting the lay of the campaign land, more and more journalists seem to have embraced the idea that their role is to help tell a compelling story, even if that means making the narrative more interesting, or competitive, than it really is. 

The press “desperately wants to cover some Democratic story other than the Clinton Coronation,” Bloomberg's David Weigel reported last year. NBC's Chuck Todd conceded it's the Beltway “press corps” that's suffers from so-called Clinton fatigue. The Atlantic's Molly Ball was among those suggesting that Clinton's candidacy is boring and that the American people are already “tired” of the former Secretary of State.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week provided little in terms of narrative excitement, but it was newsworthy nonetheless. It showed Clinton with a commanding 15-point lead over former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a 13-point lead over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, two of the best-known Republicans considering White House runs.

Nobody should think that polling results 20-plus months before an election signals certainty. But in terms of context, when the Washington Post and ABC began hypothetical polling in 2011 for Obama's re-election run, its survey showed the president enjoyed a four point lead of Romney at the time. (Obama went on to win by four points.) Today at a similar juncture, Clinton's lead over Romney stands at an astounding 15 points.

And so what kind of media response did the Clinton poll produce this week? Mostly shrugs; the press didn't seem to care. The morning the poll was published, NBC's daily political tip sheet, First Read's Morning Clips,  omitted any reference to Clinton's enormous advantage in their laundry list of must-read articles for the day. On cable news, the coverage was minimal. Or put it this way, CNN mentioned the Clinton poll once yesterday, while CNN mentioned "Tom Brady" nearly 100 times, according to

“Clinton Enjoys Enormous Lead” is just not a headline the press wants to dwell on. So polling data is often tossed in the dustbin, clearing the way for pundits and reporters to form whatever storyline they want about Clinton and her possible 2016 run. (Hint: She's in trouble! Her book tour was a "disaster"!)

Here's a perfect press example. Rounding out the calendar with a look at how a host of possible presidential candidates performed in 2014, National Journal published a year-end piece with this headline:

Jeb, Rand, Marco Exit 2014 Strong. Hillary, Not So Much; Some Presidential Contenders Capitalized in 2014. But Many Look Worse Today Than a Year Ago

According to National Journal, even though Clinton remains the frontrunner and will be hard to beat, her political standing looks “worse” than it did a year ago, compared to Sen. Marco Rubio, whose stock apparently rose in 2014.  What was omitted from the article? Campaign polling data. What would that data have looked like had it been included? It would have showed that 66 percent of Democrats would support Clinton's run for the Democratic nomination, according to a December CNN poll.  Rubio? He's supported by five percent of Republicans, according to the same CNN survey.

How does that compare to the one year ago? 63 percent of Democratic voters supported Clinton, according to CNN's polling at the time; nine percent backed Rubio. But National Journal omitted any figures and followed its gut: Rubio's stock rose in 2014, Clinton's sank.

National Journal's hook for Clinton's downward year was that her “favorability” rating had fallen in 2014. But it only dipped three points all year. Rubio's favorability? It remains underwater. Do you think there's a single would-be candidate who'd rather be Rubio's position and not Clinton's?

But wait, wasn't Clinton supposed to be “inevitable” in 2008 only to blow a gigantic lead in the primary campaign? And doesn't that mean her big polling lead today isn't really worth paying attention to?

No and no.

During this stage of the 2008 campaign, Clinton basically had a 15-to-18-point lead in Democratic primary polls. Today, it's approximately a 50-point lead. The two situations are not at all comparable, although journalists keep trying to make them analogous.

To date, the disappearing polling coverage has most often centered on the supposed battle that's playing out between Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Fourteen months ago The New Republic published a cover story suggesting Warren would emerge as Clinton's “nightmare” foe because she represented a populist and progressive movement and could steal away the Democratic nomination. Journalists generally cheered the notion and spent more than a year echoing the claims, despite nearly 50 separate denials from Warren and her insistence about having no plans to run for president.

Note that the same polls that showed Clinton with a 50-point lead over Warren in late 2013 when The New Republic story came out show Clinton maintaining essentially the same 50-point lead over Warren today. So politically, nothing much has happened among Democratic voters in terms of their commitment to Clinton.

Some progressives have legitimate policy disagreements with Clinton, and it's possible that those ranks will swell in the future. But Beltway journalists, eager for a more interesting race to cover, have every incentive to inflate the degree to which that has happened to date.

Specifically, there's been a media emphasis on the claim that Clinton's candidacy will be met with widespread unhappiness or  indifference among liberal voters. But there's just no evidence for it. In fact, the evidence supports the opposite claim. A recent McClatchy-Marist poll found that 62 percent of “very liberal-liberal” Democrats back Clinton, and 11 percent back Warren. Those findings have been repeated again and again for the last year.

If reporters and pundits wanted to write the same piece over and over about how liberals are supposedly deeply ambivalent about Hillary Clinton's possible presidential run, shouldn't the same reporters and pundits have pointed out that in virtually all the polling, self-indentified liberals overwhelmingly pick Hillary Clinton as their preferred candidate of choice in 2016? Isn't that Journalism 101?

But journalists had a story they wanted to tell so they kept telling it. ABC News: Warren is “The Senator Progressives Want For President.”

Even when journalists do reference polls, it's often in a baffling manner that seems designed to portray Clinton in the worst light.  On January 4, the Wall Street Journal's print edition published a front-page piece detailing what the paper claimed was widespread dissatisfaction with a possible Clinton candidacy in the crucial primary state. The article, which claimed party leaders in the state wanted a more liberal candidate and were worried Clinton could not win a general election campaign, waited until the eighth paragraph to point out Clinton enjoys a massive lead of “nearly 50 points” in the Hawkeye state.

Question: If Jeb Bush boasted a 50-point lead in Iowa's GOP primary polls, do you think the Journal would send a reporter there to find out why Bush wasn't gaining enough traction?  It would never happen because the premise makes no sense.

Or take this odd effort by NBC News. Rather than simply asking voters which would-be candidates they back for 2016, NBC asked respondents if they could “see yourself” supporting various presidential contenders. For Clinton, 50 percent said they could see themselves supporting her; 48 could not. And from that, NBC promoted this headline:

Poll: Hillary Clinton the Early 2016 Frontrunner, But Barely

But that made no sense. Because when NBC pollsters asked the same respondents if they could see themselves supporting a variety of Republican candidates, every single GOP contender received an overwhelming “no” response. The polling results were something of a debacle for Republicans, but NBC portrayed them as bad news for Clinton, insisting she was “barely” the favorite pick.  

Note that elsewhere (and when the topic does not revolve around Clinton), the political press remains enamored with polling results and still uses them to prop up preferred storylines. At the end of last year, when Ben Carson's popularity surged among Republicans and he finished second in a CNN GOP primary poll, CNN gushed that the former neurosurgeon had become a “political phenomenon.” How did CNN know? Because Carson was polling at ten percent!

The fact that Clinton, in the very same survey, polled at 65 percent did not translate into CNN anointing her a “phenomenon.” Clearly, different media rules apply to her.