Perhaps convinced that since they've been covering the Swift boat controversy relentlessly for weeks, that certainly it must be changing the dynamics of the presidential race, the press has been stretching lately to prove the story is crippling the Kerry campaign. Truth is, it's too early to tell how the episode will play out in the long term, but that hasn't stopped the press from rushing forward with its premature conclusions.
On Monday, NPR's Juan Williams, reporting that the Swift Boat Veterans were harming Kerry in the polls and particularly among independents, noted a National Annenberg Election Survey that found 44 percent of independents thought the Vietnam attack ad to be believable. Left unsaid by Williams was the fact that more independents -- 49 percent -- found the ad to be unbelievable. Or that the poll was concluded days before the Kerry camp launched its full-scale counterattack against the Swift boat allegations. Also left unsaid regarding the poll was that by a margin of 59 to 20 percent, independent voters think Kerry earned his medals in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that "polls suggest the attacks by the group 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' have harmed Mr. Kerry significantly." [Emphasis added.] The proof for the "significant" harm done? Wall Street Journal reporters pointed to a single CBS poll that shows Kerry's lead against Bush has shrunk from five points following the Democratic Convention in July, to one point today. Of course that minor movement fell within the survey's margin of error, which means the poll shift was hardly "significant," as the Journal suggested.
But perhaps what received the most press play as proof positive that the Swift boat charges were hurting Kerry was a separate, subset finding from that same CBS poll. It showed support for Kerry among veterans had fallen from 46 percent right after the convention in late July, to 37 percent in the wake of the Swift boat allegations. Solid proof, right? Well, it would be more solid if the CBS poll of veterans wasn't based on such a skimpy sample size of just 165 respondents, giving the survey a whopping margin of error of between 7 and 8 percent. That means of the 165 vets polled nationwide by CBS, roughly 15 fewer expressed support for Kerry between the July and August surveys. It's true the vet movement away from Kerry falls outside the margin of error, and Kathy Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS, insists the change among veterans is "real." But what's also true is that Kerry's support among veterans, who traditionally lean Republican, is now right where it was when CBS began polling vets in the spring. His support simply peaked following the post-convention bounce.
The bottom line is it's possible the Swift boat controversy will ultimately hurt Kerry in the polls. But until journalists have better proof, they ought to shy away from reporting their hunches.