ABC News' oddball election analysis

By Eric Boehlert
Published August 31, 2004 4:32PM (EDT)

ABC News makes some sweeping assumptions today about the presidential race based on the most recent ABC News/Washington Post polling data. ABC's bold conclusion -- ricocheting around the media echo chamber -- that President Bush made clear gains last month is somewhat baffling considering the poll shows Bush actually lost some ground over the past 30 days. According to the data, the race today stands at a dead heat, 48-48. Yet during the survey ending July 25, Bush held a four-point lead, 50-46.

That's just the first of many head-scratching tidbits ABC comes up with. Because what really seems to catch ABC's eye is the supposed swing toward Bush on a whole host of issues (ability to deal with terrorism, healthcare, economy, etc.), and how he was able to "reclaim an advantage" while Kerry "lost ground." According to ABC, "The real action this year is beneath the surface. While the overall horse race holds essentially steady, the issue and character judgments underlying it show ongoing reassessment."

Not really. Because ABC's making an obvious false comparison. In order to show Bush on the rise, ABC compares his numbers with a poll conducted immediately following the Democratic Convention on Aug. 1, when Kerry's numbers were artificially high and Bush's were artificially low. A better way to illustrate the dynamics of the current race would be to compare the most recent poll results with data from ABC's survey taken one month ago; that way the convention bounce is factored out. And guess what -- so are Bush's "gains."

For instance, ABC seems impressed that "on education Kerry led by 13 points after his convention; now they're even. On taxes Kerry had led by six; now they're essentially even." But by confining its analysis to the last two weeks, ABC fails to show the whole picture and fails to mention that prior to the convention bounce, Kerry and Bush were even on education, which means nothing has changed there. Also left unsaid is that on the issue of taxes, today the candidates are even, yet 30 days ago Bush held a six-point lead on that issue.

The fact is, despite ABC's spin, Bush has not improved on a host of issues. According to ABC's own numbers, comparing Aug. 29 with July 25, Bush's standing on handling the economy remains statistically unchanged. His support for the fight on terrorism is unchanged. Healthcare, unchanged. Honest and trustworthy, unchanged. Understanding problems of people like you, unchanged. A strong leader, unchanged. Will make the country safer, unchanged.

Not surprisingly, the exact same pattern holds for Kerry. Factor out the convention bounce poll results and down the same line of questions -- economy, terrorism, healthcare, honest, understanding problems, strong leader and making the country safer -- Kerry's numbers, statistically, haven't moved since July.

In other words, over the past month the race for the White House has remained virtually unchanged. The problem for journalists is that that doesn't make for very interesting copy.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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