Sun uses polls for a sophisticated job explaining races

PUBLIC EDITOR

October 01, 2006|By PAUL MOORE

In the past, readers have criticized articles based on Sun-sponsored polls of Maryland voters, saying these stories inject the newspaper into the political process by giving the survey results too much prominent play.

Recent articles on the latest Sun poll results in the races for governor and U.S. Senate, however, showed a sophisticated level of reporting and presentation that in my view justifies their prominent placement in the newspaper.

The Sun's efforts to interview more poll participants added dimension to the numbers. The newspaper also was careful to explain the poll's statistical limitations (margins of error) and made effective use of graphics to help readers make sense of the results. The headlines were straightforward and carefully worded, and virtually every story included valuable analysis from experts.

A Sept. 25 article describing Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's apparent 11-point lead over his U.S. Senate race opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, cautiously quoted a University of Maryland government professor high in the story: "This is not the kind of lead that's insurmountable at this stage."

A Sept. 24 article headlined "Governor's Race Tight," which reported that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley holds a six-point advantage over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., noted that Democrat O'Malley's lead is much smaller than the double-digit lead he held last year. Reporter Andrew A. Green also noted that The Sun poll's results were different from Ehrlich's own internal polls, which aides say show the governor ahead of O'Malley.

Reader D. Thompson reacted to Green's story: "Good job and well-balanced. As much as I dislike O'Malley and cringe at the words Governor O'Malley, the article was very evenhanded. Bias would stand out ... so I give you and your editor credit."

What should matter most to readers is the reliability of the numbers and the polling firm's methodology. Since 1998 The Sun's polls have been conducted by Potomac Inc., an independent firm based in Bethesda that has been surveying Maryland voters for more than 20 years.

As noted in the articles, the latest poll surveyed 815 likely voters who demographically reflected the geographic distribution, political party, gender and race of the statewide electorate. Reporters then used the company's list of participants who agreed during the polling to be interviewed to help explain the results.

Despite these efforts, some readers continued to question the poll results and the impact they may have on voters.

David Baraloto said: "When is The Sun going to stop trying to influence public opinion with your phony polls? Didn't Ehrlich beating Kennedy Townsend teach you anything?"

In fact, The Sun's final 2002 gubernatorial polls proved accurate. The September 2002 poll had Ehrlich and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend running even. The final 2002 poll, published the Sunday before the election (the story received major front-page play), showed Ehrlich with a lead of 4 percentage points. That was the margin of his victory two days later.

Another reader, Michael Adamczyk, said: "I found the recent Sun poll of the race for governor to be suspect. It reported that the two candidates are running evenly in Carroll County. Many folks in Carroll laughed out loud upon reading this. To think that half of our residents would vote for Martin O'Malley is preposterous. A quick check of how we voted in 2002 will support this assertion. The `results' of the poll in Carroll make the entire poll unreliable."

Mr. Adamczyk based his comments on a graphic called "Candidates by county" that accompanied the Sept. 24 article. The map was intended to show that Ehrlich and O'Malley were tied in the Baltimore region, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties.

That misleading headline caused some readers to conclude wrongly that the two candidates were tied in each jurisdiction as opposed to the entire region. The Sun ran a clarification on Page 2A in the next day's editions.

Several other readers were surprised that the governor's race poll showed that only 6 percent of likely voters were undecided, a smaller share than normal this early in a campaign.

"That figure seems really important because it indicates that almost everyone has made up their minds about Ehrlich and O'Malley," said reader Dominic G. "It's just like that in my office where it seems virtually everyone has decided who they are to going vote for."

The 2006 political season has become the most intense and competitive in Maryland in a generation, especially the races for governor and U.S. Senate. In my view, The Sun's polls and the articles expanding on them have provided and should continue to provide readers with meaningful information about the relative strengths of the major candidates.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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