Jeff Greenfield takes questions on media polling and coverage of the primaries.

Jeff Greenfield takes questions on media polling and coverage of the primaries.

Jeff Greenfield takes questions on media polling and coverage of the primaries.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Jan. 11 2008 2:19 PM

Poll Positions

Jeff Greenfield takes readers' questions on the New Hampshire screw-up and how the media cover the primaries.

Slate contributor Jeff Greenfield, CBS News' senior political correspondent, was online at Washingtonpost.com on Jan. 10 to discuss the media's New Hampshire polling screw-up, speculation of the presidential race, and other complexities of the primary races.

Jeff Greenfield: Hi, I'm Jeff Greenfield, senior political correspondent, for CBS News (the "senior" is no doubt an age-ist slur, but let that pass) and I'll be taking your questions for the next 45 minutes or so ... everything from the now-infamous New Hampshire poll screw-up to—whatever. So—we begin.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Jeff. When did you leave CNN for CBS, and why?

Jeff Greenfield: I moved over to CBS in April. It's not complicated—I just thought it was a better fit for me now: a trade-off with less time, but a more intensive editing process—and my old ABC and CNN boss, Rick Kaplan, is in charge of the Evening News.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Enough with the empty media breast-beating about how it totally embarrassed itself in New Hampshire. As if there's going to be any change in the lowest common denominator manner in which it "covers" presidential politics! Besides, this is the best of all possible worlds for your business: months and months of stories with lots of characters to spice up the reports. You never had it better. The only possible down side is the apparent collapse of Giuliani in his firewall state of Florida, because the ultimate story that you all wanted was a Hillary/Rudy finale, and that doesn't look too likely right now.

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You guys never, ever change your ways, or depart from a comfortable scenario. I mean, how many of the reporters who loathed Gore and flat-out made up lies about him in 2000 actually have apologized to him, or to us, for that matter! How many stories do we get about the flip-flops and dissembling by Sen. Straight Talk? Hope that's not too cynical.

Jeff Greenfield: Let me put aside the Gore part of the question and agree—mostly—with your skepticism if not cynicism about the prospects of change. The predictive impulse is in the DNA. I was struck by the Brokaw-Matthews exchange when Brokaw suggested we stop predicting and Chris said, in effect, well then we should just stay home, as if there was no other enterprise—say, maybe, reporting economic and cultural shifts in the electorate, political history and such. One hopeful note—this came really early and maybe in some quarters it will act as a restraining mechanism—for, say, two weeks.

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Boston: Jeff, don't beat yourself up for being wrong about Hillary in New Hampshire. Even Wall Street chiefs and hedge fund partners get it wrong sometimes (like beating on mortgage backed securities). The only difference is when they get it so wrong they get fired. Would political pundits have a little more humility in making their predictions if they were actually held accountable for them (unlike Kristol on the Iraq war, Matthews on CNBC—what is up with that guy?—etc.)? Or is there some implicit tenure process involved in the media today where once you reach a certain level of recognition you can't be fired no matter how wrong you turn out to be?

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Jeff Greenfield: If we fired everyone who got it wrong on the biggest screw-up ever—the 2000 election night fiasco(s)—there's be no MSM left. Oh, wait ... that's not exactly bad news in cyberworld. Maybe we should all be forced to post our past mistakes. (Lindsay will be elected President in 1972!)

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Washington: Forget about the early polls; how could the exit polls in New Hampshire have been so wrong—but only on the Democratic side? Is the color line rearing its ugly head yet again?

Jeff Greenfield: As you may have noticed, the race question is in Andrew Kohut's New York Times op-ed piece today. It's purely speculative—most folks think the so-called "Bradley effect" (after the 1982 governor's race in Caifornia when polls said Tom Bradley—the African American Los Angeles Mayor would win—is less of a factor now. Kohut suggests that lower income, less-educated voters in New Hampshire may have had issues with a black candidate—but they also may simply have been more willing to hang up on pollsters—and they'd be likely to be more Clinton-type voters without the race issue. The beer-drinker vs. wine-drinker split in that state is as old as Hart-Mondale, McCarthy-LBJ, Bradley-Gore, Tsongas-Clinton.

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I think a simpler answer (remember Occam's Razor) is that Clinton's "moment" Monday night happened after pollsters had stopped polling—and with a sizable share of voters saying the could well change their minds, the polls simply didn't pick it up. But that's my speculation.

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Washington: Why wasn't Bill Richardson able to create more momentum around himself? He is the most qualified of all the Democratic candidates but he never seemed to get the attention as Clinton, Obama and Edwards.

washingtonpost.com: Richardson Dropping Presidential Bid(AP, Jan. 10)

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Jeff Greenfield: Good question: Richardson seemed like a strong candidate with an exceptional resume (and clever "job interview" ads). I followed him some in the spring for a Playboy interview and my sense was he was relying too much on personal charm—of which he has plenty—and not enough on a carefully thought-out, disciplined message.

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Springfield, Va.: Bravo for coming here and facing the music a little bit. In Kurtz's column this morning, you seemed to take issue with the groupthink dynamic of the urban media communes in Georgetown and Midtown, saying it had a good deal to do with why the press was/has been so far off throughout the primary season in its handicapping. While it's true that McCain was in trouble last year, he clearly never was "dead" or "toast." From the perspective of many of us, the press is often quite guilty of overblowing a situation for dramatic effect, believing the hype it created, and then being stunned when things in the real world don't play out the way the press had scripted them in their own little imaginative world. Is there any serious chance that the press might take a step back from this level of irresponsibility and leave the handicapping to bookies who actually know what they're talking about?

washingtonpost.com: In Picking The Victors, Media Get Another Drubbing(Post, Dec. 10)

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Jeff Greenfield: I'm not sure about bookies, but I play pretty close attention to the political futures market—the "wisdom of crowds" and all that. Let me offer a mild partial dissent on McCain coverage. When a top-tier presidential candidate (I can defend this characterization, but I hope I don't have to) reveals he is out of money and suffers a huge staff meltdown, that candidate is in trouble. It's the "He's toast! He's dead!" bloviation that's over the top. In an age of massive media overload, there is a Gresham's Law at work—bad conversation tends to drive out good conversation. For years, I've ended most of my on-camera stuff with my own version of "Carthage Must Be Destroyed" Mine is: "Could we let somebody vote?" And ye, on Slate, I wrote about the next stage of the campaign without fully noting that it was based on an assumption that the New Hampshire polls were right.

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Anonymous: This election is all about post-Baby Boomers grabbing power—do you agree?

Jeff Greenfield: Uh ... I'm not sure how John McCain fits this scenario.

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Arlington, Va.: I read just now that Senator Kerry is endorsing Obama. Why haven't we heard from the candidates now out of the race (Dodd, Biden, Richardson) about endorsements? As a fan of all three of them, I would be very interested to have their input.

Jeff Greenfield: My hunch is, you will ... maybe they'd like to spend a few days—or weeks—on a beach.

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Hartford, Conn.: Hi Jeff. I always enjoy your commentary. Would it be fair to say in a general election that if the Republicans don't do something about there anti-immigration dialogue that is offensive to Hispanic Americans, California, Texas, New Jersey and Illinois are going to be hard to win? As a Hispanic American there are a lot of us who live there and are turned off by the anti-immigration or illegal immigration language.

Jeff Greenfield: This is one of the Great Unknowns ... there is some evidence (A New Yorker piece some weeks back detailed this) that immigration is a powerful issue for Republicans in Iowa and South Carolina, but perhaps not nationally. It didn't seem to help Romney in either of the first two states. One caution: there are Democratic voters for whom this issue is troublesome—I heard a lot of comments in Iowa about this topic. Some of the negative feeling on illegal immigration is not nativist, but an economic concern that an increased supply of unskilled labor drives down wages for the unskilled in general.

It's probably true that the anti-immigration theme of California Gov. Pete Wilson's 1994 re-election hurt Republicans as far as the Hispanic vote in that state goes—but remember, in 2003, Ah-nold came out strongly against drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, and won the Hispanic vote (those here for two or three or four generations, I think).

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Ellicott City, Md.: "Everybody knows" what happened to John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, but all I've ever heard were rumors of push-polling. Has anything ever been documented or traced back to the Bush campaign, or is it still just rumors?

Jeff Greenfield: As far as I know, there was no "smoking gun" that linked back to the Bush campaign. What did happen was more than push-polling: Fliers and talk radio conversations charged McCain with everything from having become a "Manchurian candidate" to fathering a child—a black child in some of the talk—out of wedlock. And one faculty members at a religious institution charged McCain on the record with adultery, and when challenged said something to the effect of: "Can you prove he didn't?" It was as ugly as anything I've seen—and, by the way, my hunch is there will be less of it this time. A lot of Palmetto State Republicans were powerfully shamed.

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Germantown, Md.: Jeff ... what the media describes as conventional wisdom, we are finding to be conventional idiocy. All of the factors they are churning out as reasons why Hillary won were on full display prior to the primary—not a single pundit stringed them together as possible reason why Hillary might win. Now voters have exposed their idiocy, and they want us to believe that they know why she won? Please. Why is it that a common theme gets advanced, and every pundit jumps on it as if it is their original thought?

Jeff Greenfield: You know Sen. Eugene McCarthy's line on the press? "One blackbird flies and lands on the telephone line, they all land. One flies away, they all fly away." (I'm paraphrasing here. But do consider—it's way easier to figure what happened after it happens. I may (wretched sports metaphor alert!) get it completely wrong about the Yankees beating the Red Sox in '04, but afterward I confidently can cite A-Rod's meltdown and Kevin Brown's choke.) But let me chime in with you on a point I saw firsthand: watching the debates in a huge press room with hundreds of people gives you no real sense of how people are watching—or how they will see the highlights on the news. So Clinton's passionate argument for her campaign was seen as "shrill" (I'm including a lot of women journalists in the room) and it appears as if the "real people" watching had a different take.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Why didn't Wyoming get the same attention as New Hampshire? Similarly, why isn't Nevada deemed as important as South Carolina?

Jeff Greenfield: Do you know how long it takes to get to Wyoming from New York or Washington? (More seriously, there's a 56 year history of New Hampshire as a lead primary ... I have a hunch that not that many folks participated in the Wyoming caucuses. By the way, did anyone think it just a bit odd that Romney said "thank you, Wyoming!" in his post-primary speech?)

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Plainsboro, N.J.: Jeff: Honored to be "talking" to you. Re: "Oh, waiter, two orders of crow, please. This is what happens when you ignore your own advice to let the people vote first." (Your addendum to the Slate piece.) Very gracious of you. How long do you think it takes for the press to forget the lessons (and the orders of crow they had to eat) from New Hampshire?

Jeff Greenfield: Two weeks, I think I said a few moments ago. But in fairness, I think different outlets and individuals will do better—or worse. Maybe we could rig up a device—like an electronic shock bracelet to the leg or other body part of any journalist who began to say or write: "a new poll..." Could somebody check with the ACLU on this?

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Bowie, Md.: Jeff you've been around politics a long time and you know the subject inside and out. So let me ask this: Why, as a society, as citizens, do we continue to allow ourselves to be "sold" on candidates via their personalities and telegenics, as opposed to actually pushing them for answers to how they will approach real problems? Why do we and the media continue to allow their campaigns to lie to us (check out almost any of the claims made by any of the leading candidates ... Mitt's Dad marching with MLK I think was one claim, but plenty of others by the others). Why do we see the political process as just another sales campaign? Why do the media play sideline reporter about who is ahead and who is not and upsets, etc., when they should be pushing candidates to actually tell us what they would do about the problems this country faces? How about a new news mantra: No substance, no coverage?

Jeff Greenfield: This question is worth a book or two—I think I wrote one back around 1981. One historical note: we elect a Head of State and a head of government at the same time—we always have wanted to know more than the sum of a candidate's policies. Personality goes back to Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, even Lincoln (who was a railroad lawyer way after he was a railsplitter, but his campaign didn't really stress the lawyer thing—Bob Newhart has a whole comedy routine about Lincoln's media advisor).

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Boston: Posting your past mistakes is a thought—kind of like showing a hitter's batting average when they come up to bat. So, are you over the Mendoza line (.200) in your predictions this year? What is a good correct prediction batting average for a political pundit? How about a prediction at this point in time for who wins the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations? You can come back on down the road and we can see how you did.

Jeff Greenfield: Dave Broder of the Post, the unofficial president pro tempore of the press corps, does just such a column every year.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think there may be an effect on polling where respondants are intentionally not telling the truth to pollsters? It seems to me if respondents lie, the polls could be way off. How do pollsters adjust for this potential error? Also, have voters had enough of all the media/polls that they give misleading responses ?

Jeff Greenfield: People love to speculate about this—I think what is far more in evidence is how many people refuse to talk to pollsters—if for no other reason than that they don't want to be interrupted at home by anyone. There's some reason to think that the 2004 Election Day polls were wrong because Democratic voters were more willing to talk to the canvassers than Republican voters.

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Philadelphia: Mr. Greenfield: Many thanks for taking our questions! John Kerry is endorsing Obama (according to this morning's reports). What are your thoughts on how this impacts the campaign? In particular, Hillary has been seen as the candidate with the most support from the Democratic base. Doesn't this start to chip away against that assertion? And lastly, do you think Al Gore will endorse someone before Tsunami Tuesday? If so, will it carry any weight?

Jeff Greenfield: I think there are relatively few endorsements of this sort that matter. (And please—"impacts" should not be a verb! That's the son of an English teacher channeling his mother.) An endorsement matters, I think, when it's a surprise: crossing party lines, for example, or someone highly visible and trusted who's never backed a candidate before. (Oprah? Maybe.)

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Cartoon Network: Do you know whether the Obama camp is aware that their new "Yes We Can" theme is identical to Bob the Builder's?

washingtonpost.com: Bob the Builder theme song(YouTube)

Jeff Greenfield: I don't know. Let's see if Clinton or Thompson or somebody starts using "I love you, you love me..."

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A kingdom far, far away: How much diplomatic capital did Bill Clinton spend when he used the phrase "fairy tale" to describe his rival's movement? Was it a shrewd investment?

Jeff Greenfield: This is an intriguing question—that was an unscripted, very angry answer to a question by Bill Clinton. I don't have any idea whether this will be seen as an indignant husband defending his wife, or as someone who is angry at anyone threatening "succession."

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Washington: Jeff—do you think the press and the debate formats we're using really tell us anything about candidate's positions? I'd like to hear of Hillary, McCain or Obama can give me a thumbnail of the last 50 years of Iranian history. I'd like to know whether they understand how pharmaceuticals are financed and produced. I'd like to know if they know the price of milk and gas. I'd like to know their in-depth limitations as well as their broad pronouncements. I don't see them being pushed ... thoughts?

Jeff Greenfield: I want debates where candidates have time to answer questions ... something much easier when the field is narrowed. I think the Jim Lehrer-candidates-at-a-table format, with no strict time limits, works pretty well. You may know that Barry Goldwater always said he and JFK had an understanding that if they ran in '64, they'd hold a series of debates, in different cities, on single topics. If I ran a debate, I'd have at east one math question ("a train leaves New York going West at 80 miles an hour; another train...") I'd also want to know how they feel about the designated-hitter rule—federalism, or a single national standard?

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Iowa City, Iowa: If the exit polls were so wrong about who would win in New Hampshire, doesn't it call into question all of the other information from those polls, such as which candidates women voted for, etc.?

Jeff Greenfield: You raise an intriguing question ... pollsters tell me the attitudinal stuff is more reliable than the vote stuff—but I don't know nearly enough to be able to tell you why.

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Bowie, Md.: The predictions ... do they matter to anyone except the media? Do they accomplish anything at all?

Jeff Greenfield: I started to write a semi-defense of them—and realized I couldn't. I think the New Hampshire case was unusual in that nobody—including the Clinton campaign—was saying anything other than a comfortable Obama victory. No one was waving anyone off. But you know what? That doesn't matter.

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Helena, Mont.: Boy, am I in wrong demographic. I am middle class, college educated, democrat, and I never talk to pollsters. I tell them we have a secret ballot for a reason. I just wish no one would talk to pollsters and would keep their vote secret. That's the American way!

Jeff Greenfield: That'd be fine with me ... the one time I was handed an exit poll—years ago—I looked at the list of questions (income, martial status, sexual preference) and offered a colorful suggestion about where the questionnarie might find a home.

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Augusta, Maine: "Yes, We can" reminded me of the title of the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr.: "Yes, I Can." I would think Obama had heard of that, maybe his grandparents had it around the house. Davis was a figure who appealed across racial lines—a uniter, not a divider. What do you think?

Jeff Greenfield: Well ... I will share with you a line that Davis often used. He was supposedly setting out for a round of golf and someone asked "what's your handicap?" He answered: "I'm a one-eyed black Jew—what's yours?" This next one will have to be my final entry.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Jeff, You obviously had a very upclose view of (and participation in) the RFK campaign in 1968. Much has been written about Obama and comparisons to RFK and the power of oratory and creation of a "movement." Are there real parallels here?

Jeff Greenfield: I've been asked this a lot. I think it's an overreach. In '68, there was a war with 500,000 American in uniform—many draftees—with hundreds dying every week. Cities were in flames; so were campuses. And RFK was the brother of a martyred president who had been a key player in the Cuban Missile Crisis—the most serious in decades, maybe ever. I understand the comparison—but I don't think it's right.

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Ashland, Mo.: Commentators seem to have difficulty not making straight line extrapolations from one event to another. They also violate the Sherlock Holmes rule that hard evidence determines the outcome, not evidence that fits a preconceived theory. Shouldn't we just assume political reporters and commentators are obsessive compulsive people who can't be trusted to be objective because they just don't have the capacity to be objective? Much like smokers who can't quit.

Jeff Greenfield: Be my guest ... sometimes readers and listeners have their own preconceived notions! With that, I'll sign off. Thanks for the quality of the questions...