Politics: Embrace the horse race

Sure, go ahead, harp on the shallowness of American political journalism. Or – relax. Let it go. Give in to your inner pettiness. Embrace the horse race for the U.S. presidency. That’s the sports-like commentary that passes for political reporting. Every major news organization produces it, and the blogosphere reacts predictably with the echo of data and theories about what it all means.

The currency of the race is not fact-checking or reporting or explaining what anyone stands for – it is polling data. Today’s news is today’s poll result. Coming around the corner it’s someone in the lead, someone else trailing.

Polling, of course, is a stunt as much as a reporting device. Expert analysis is no different in politics than in sports: you weigh the insight and expertise of the analyst against their personality and biases. Over time and with repetition, the stunt forms its own narrative of gains and losses, and that, too, passes for and dictates reporting.

Thanks to the web you can now track that narrative around-the-clock. Here are three web sites that allow you to rapidly scan and ingest all the data and every shred of news about the U.S. presidential election, and track the trends quantified by a relentless stream of polls.

  • RealClearPolitics: I’ve linked to the site’s index of polls, which, for me, is vastly more informative than any single report on a single poll. Obama leads McCain by 5 points in today’s New York Times/CBS poll. Sure. But here I can see that stacked up against polls from Quinnipiac University, Gallup, Rasmussen, Hotline, Reuters/Zogby, and more, and that the average of all these polls shows Obama ahead by 0.9 percent. In other words – a statistical dead heat.
  • PoliticsHome: Launched earlier this year in the UK, this site is designed like a financial analyst’s dashboard. A single screen incorporates a scrolling index of posts from 100 political blogs, a minute-by-minute scroll of headlines reporting developments, top news, front page screenshots from major newspapers, and, yes, endless polling data, including its own daily survey of “the 100 leading online voices” in the United States.
  • Pollster.com: This is a sister site to PoliticsHome, and both are owned by YouGov/Polimetrix, Inc., a UK polling firm. This site’s presentation of polling trends is a tad harder to scroll through, but with the added benefit of state results and additional information on the methodology. So, for instance, you can see that today’s New York Times/CBS data was based on live telephone interviews of 1004 registered voters, with a breakdown for likely voters; whereas Sept. 13 results from Rasmussen Reports in Rhode Island were based on 500 likely voters surveyed by an automated/recorded phone system called interactive voice response, or IVR.

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