Sunday, September 15, 2002

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

In Sunday's Commercial Appeal, on the front page of the Metro section, above the fold, is this story with the headline "Bredesen leads poll by 8 points." But you have to read down into the story to get the facts.

The poll, not from Mason-Dixon this time but the UT-Knoxville Social Sciences Institute, has a margin of error of four points. That makes the poll a dead heat! Oops! No lead for Bredesen. And when you look at the raw numbers, the story is made moot.

Bredesen: 37%
Hilleary: 29%
Undecided: 29%
Other: 5%

The Undecideds are as large as the Hilleary voting bloc! The poll becomes meaningless. But that doesn't stop the CA, or the poll's designer Dr. Michael Gant, from drawing all sorts of conclusions, most favorable to Bredesen, natch.
The poll shows Bredesen drawing substantial support from
Tennesseans opposed to a state income tax, despite Hilleary's
efforts to depict the Democrat as less strongly opposed to such a
levy than he. At the same time, Bredesen has strong support
from those who favor a state income tax....

Bredesen has repeatedly said he's against a state income tax,
though Hilleary has made a theme of saying that the Democrat's
opposition is soft compared to his adamant stand.
Bredesen can draw meaningful support from both the pro- and anti-IT sides? In this deeply angry state? In the election cycle that has seen supporters of the IT fall in record numbers?

Bredesen's position on the IT hasn't been against, as the CA claims. It's been all over. Tax Free Tennessee and Bill Hobbs especially, and I, have all been tracking this. He has, at different times, taken several positions, but not one has been explicitly anti-IT. It is, to use my term that Bill Hobbs likes, "movable." The poll results, if you take them as realistic, prove it.

The CA goes on:
Gant said the results may indicate Hilleary's strategy of declaring
himself the more strongly opposed to an income tax is not
working well.

"Those kind of distinctions are often basically meaningless to
voters," he said. "I think at some point, people just turn that off
and then they go on to something else."
What planet do these people live on? Haven't they noticed the atmosphere in this state the past three years? The voters turning out those pro-IT legislators who haven't bailed themselves? Gant seems to be telling his employers, the newspapers, what they want to hear. It sounds a lot like what the CA would like Hilleary to do and it sure isn't the truth.

Go back and reread the article carefully. Notice the use of weasel words, active v. passive voice, and hands-off sentence constructions that make Bredesen's positions facts and Hilleary's assertions. Bredesen "says" while Hilleary "makes a theme." It's the kind of newspaper writing intended to slant while leaving the writer with room to claim he's not.

And then there's Ed Sanders. Gant himself says:
"Sanders is a nonfactor at this point," Gant said, rejecting
speculation that the minister could siphon large numbers of votes
from Bredesen.
This is such a clever bit of misdirection that I have to take it apart. Yes, Sanders is a non-factor. But that doesn't stop the CA from plumping him and his campaign as though he's a viable candidate. But it's not Bredesen that the paper hopes to affect, it's Hilleary! Just as they did with Jim Henry, that state's papers have a strategy of working to divide (or give the appearance of division and meaningful opposition within) the Republicans. It's intended to hurt Hilleary and thereby help Bredesen.

Ask the reporters, though, and they'll deny it. But look at the primaries, where Bredesen's opponent, who was also anti-IT, couldn't get a look-in, but the no-hoper Henry got serious treatment. Same with Sanders, who got a nearly full page article just a few weeks ago. By making him more high-profile, they hope to siphon off Hilleary supporters.

Sanders is only one of thirteen independent candidates and he has roughly the same poll numbers -- microscopic. But the Libertarian Party candidate has a greater claim to viability, thanks to the LP's prominent profile in the Income Tax Wars. Think he'll get a look-in from the CA? Of course not, and neither will any of the others. Only Sanders will, because he serves the CA's agenda.

The rest of the article labors to use the numbers to prove that Bredesen has wide and diverse support, but it's all smoke and mirrors, political propaganda. Bredesen's been saturating the airwaves with ads -- something the CA fails to mention as a possible reason for his numbers -- while Hilleary has been holding back. Expect other poll numbers to come along in the next weeks that don't back up what the CA has to say.

Until next time.

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