Media turns democracy into unfair game

By Jason Schwartz

With the Iowa caucuses wrapped up, the presidential primary elections are in full throttle. The race for the Democratic Party nomination is down to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, while the Republican Party nomination is likely coming down to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

This is exactly how you’ll see most media outlets presenting the election because the press loves to cover elections as if they were a horse race. The press talks about who’s winning, who’s losing and who’s doing better or worse than expected: Everything boils down to a race. These media outlets simply think this is the best way to make the presidential election entertaining and worth watching.

Because of this coverage, political polls are given far too much weight during election season.

Polls determine who is “winning” and who should be discussed on the news. Not only are these polls usually misleading, but they also unfortunately knock out legitimate candidates far too early in the race, based solely on the small sample of information garnered from the polls.

Straw polls, or public opinion polls, were first conducted in 1824 when newspapers would interview voters as they left the polling place. The polling system that we have become accustomed to began to take shape during the Great Depression, when the response rate amongst citizens was close to 90 percent.

Back then there wasn’t much issue with political straw polls, but a problem has begun to arise in today’s society because the response rate is now under 10 percent. That means the people responding to these interviewers are not representative of the entire country. To compound this issue, the significance of these polls in shaping political coverage has increased dramatically in recent years.

Last year, Fox News announced that, in order to participate in the first GOP debate, candidates had to place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls. Not only that, but where the candidates stood on stage would also be determined by their polling numbers.

In a day and age where voting turnouts are at an all-time low, the small percentage of Americans who respond to these polls should not have such a large influence over who gets the most press coverage.

The media’s job should be to present each candidate equally, especially early on in the race when candidates are just beginning to state their platforms. The media’s purpose has always been to act as a buffer between the public and the government: Allowing the public to sway the vote so early on blurs these lines.

Those who design these surveys were even flabbergasted by Fox News’ decision to let the polling determine the arrangements for the first debate.

“I just don’t think polling is really up to the task of deciding the field for the headliner debate,” Scott Keeter, a director of survey research for Pew, said in an interview with The New Yorker.

To put such heavy reliance on the polls so early in the presidential race is a disservice to America’s democratic process.

Lesser-known, legitimate candidates are left out of media coverage early on because they aren’t doing well in polls, but those polls don’t even account for the majority of Americans. Once so many candidates were left out of the debate on Fox News due to these polls, their chances of winning the Republican nomination instantly fell to zero.

The moderators for these debates are also much more likely to ask the majority of questions to the candidates who are viewed to be “winning” in the polls. Take, for example, one of the first GOP debates in August 2015, when the race seemed to be between Trump and Jeb Bush.

In that debate, Trump led all candidates with more than 10 minutes of speaking time, blowing away the field in that category. Only one other candidate received more than seven minutes to speak: Bush, who spoke for just less than nine minutes.

What compounds the issues with these polls is that they are not only too frequently used in the media, but they are also often inaccurate. In the Iowa polls leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Trump led all GOP candidates with 31 percent of the vote while Cruz held 24 percent. On the Democratic side, Sanders led Clinton 49 percent to 46 percent, respectively.

So naturally, when the Iowa caucuses actually occurred, the polls were rendered useless. Cruz beat out Trump 28 percent to 24 percent while Clinton holds a slight advantage over Sanders, 49.8 percent to 49.6 percent. This further highlights why using this faulty measuring stick to get rid of qualified candidates early on in an election process is barbaric.

The bottom line is we should let democracy do what it does best: elect the most qualified candidate as president. That should not involve the media telling us who is best based solely on the thoughts of less than 10 percent of the American population.

Jason is a senior in LAS.

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