Polling is a tricky business. It's an inexact science predicated on extrapolating broad trends from small populations. The safest way to approach polls is to treat them as what they are: snapshots of a moment in time taken from a specific angle. The worst way to handle them is to do what Breitbart.com is doing with CNN's polls: treating them either as the unvarnished truth or a pernicious liberal conspiracy depending entirely on President Obama's numbers.
On June 1, CNN released a poll showing that the presidential race had tightened from the previous month, and Breitbart.com's John Sexton called it "bad news for the president."
More bad news for the President arrives today in the form of a new CNN poll. The poll, conducted May 29-31, shows the race for President has tightened significantly over the last month. If the election were held today, 49% would vote for Obama and 46% for Romney, which is within the poll's margin of error.
Last month CNN's poll showed the President with a 9-point advantage (52-43%). The high water mark for the President has been 54% in CNN's March poll.
On August 9, CNN released a poll showing Obama with a seven-point lead over Mitt Romney among registered voters, and Breitbart.com's Mike Flynn alleged "CNN Is Just Making Up Poll Numbers Now."
Okay, I'm not certain they are literally making up poll results, but the poll CNN and British market research firm ORC International released Thursday afternoon is so screwy and raises so many questions that they might as well be doing it intentionally. If CNN is already resorting to these kinds of tricks before the conventions have even started, it's going to be a very long campaign.
Almost a month later, on September 4, CNN released a poll showing that Romney's favorability numbers improved following the Republican National Convention. A month after accusing CNN of "making up poll numbers," Flynn touted the new CNN poll's numbers:
I know the media is telling us that Romney didn't receive a bounce in the polls after the RNC convention last week. Yet, a new poll released last night by CNN suggests otherwise. 53% of likely voters now have a favorable impression of Romney, against 43% who view him unfavorably. Before the convention, Romney's favorables were 50/46. This is a six-point improvement in his favorables. In other words, a bounce.
And just yesterday, CNN released its poll showing a large post-convention bounce for Obama, and Flynn was back to alleging that CNN is cooking its numbers, asking: "Did CNN Rig Its Own Poll?"
CNN is grabbing political headlines tonight with the release of its latest poll. It shows Obama surging to a 6-point lead over Romney, 52-46, among likely. Before the start of the Democrat convention, the candidates had been tied in the poll. Since it purportedly confirms a narrative the media is trying to build, i.e. that Obama is starting to pull away with the race, it is getting wide coverage. However, there are a couple of strange things within the poll that cast doubt on its veracity. And, at least one concern warrants a response from CNN.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Conservative bloggers routinely accuse pollsters of being liberal shills who purposefully distort their numbers to help out Democrats -- a serious accusation that they toss out with alarming ease and little justification. But the funny thing about polls is that they change, and all those accusations of misconduct and bias suddenly evaporate once the numbers shift in their preferred candidates' direction.