Late last night I fulminated about an article at USNews.com on the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky that appeared to be completely ignorant of how to interpret an opinion poll, and damme, today there's another article that does the exact same thing. From McClatchy!
Here is the guilty sentence, from an article by Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader: "A poll released Friday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in Raleigh, N.C., showed Grimes leading McConnell 45 percent to 44 percent in the race."*
No such thing. The margin of error in the Public Policy poll was plus or minus nearly 3 percentage points (a fact that USNews.com, inept as it was, disclosed, though the McClatchy article omitted it). Tell me how you can say that a poll showing a separation of one percentage point and a margin of error of nearly three each way can confidently assert that someone is "leading."
The most that you can reasonably say is that, sixteen months out from the general election, preferences look to be roughly split among Kentuckians who appear to have paid any attention to the contest.
We know that many Republicans were convinced that Mitt Romney would win the presidency and contemptuous of Nate Silver's analysis, their confidence based on the shaky foundation of unreliable polling. That is to be expected. People running for office, and those who conduct the campaign, have to operate on a will to believe if they are to survive the brutal gantlet.
But journalists are supposed to be skeptical, keeping themselves at a remove from partisan enthusiasms. At least in theory, reporters are also supposed to have slit-eyed, flint-hearted editors who are doubly skeptical of their copy. Add to that that the Associated Press Stylebook has carried language about the interpretation of polls and surveys nearly since George Gallup entered puberty, and you have to ask yourself a question:
How the hell does stodge like this continue to be published?
*That's incumbent senator Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes.