Sunday, June 15, 2008

Three makes a survey

When I was a young reporter, the "survey" feature was a dread assignment: Get comments on some subject from a small sampling of people in the community. Often, the editor's idea was to "localize" some national story ("No impact here, officials say") and the writer who got the assignment was going to spend the whole day hassling people on the phone in order to write a story that was, in essence, artificial.

Generally speaking, you wanted at least five different sources quoted in a survey feature, but in a pinch, three would do. So there was a little newsroom joke, "Three makes a survey."

David Paul Kuhn of the Politico does much better than that, getting six academic sources into his survey of presidential historians, who agree: John McCain is doomed in November:
"It is one of the worst political environments for the party in power since World War II," added Alan Abramowitz, a professor of public opinion and the presidency at Emory University. His forecasting model — which factors in gross domestic product, whether a party has completed two terms in the White House and net presidential approval rating — gives McCain about the same odds as Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Carter in 1980 — both of whom were handily defeated in elections that returned the presidency to the previously out-of-power party. "It would be a pretty stunning upset if McCain won," Abramowitz said.
What Dr. Abramowitz's model ignores, naturally, is that both Stevenson and Carter were ineffective liberals, running against "biography" candidates. Stevenson's opponent was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander in chief of Allied forces in Europe; Carter's opponent was Ronald Reagan, former movie star and successful two-term governor of California.

But, gee, is there anything else that might make 2008 kind of a different presidential election? Help me -- I'm drawing a blank here.

By the way, to register a note of protest, I reject as illegitimate the expertise implied in the phrase "presidential historian." This is obviously a racket cooked up by academics itching to be booked as guests on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal."

(Via Memeorandum.)

UPDATE: Just to mention something from my days at The Washington Times, "The Larry Sabato Rule."

Wes Pruden hated the way that the Washington Post always quoted academics as "expert" sources in political stories. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia was the most common source of this kind in those stories with the authoritative "political analysts say" in the lede. So what became colloquially known in the Washington Times newsroom as "The Larry Sabato Rule" was a more or less comprehensive ban on such sources; certainly, you couldn't hang a major story on a few quotes from Sabato, as the Post was sometimes wont to do.

Wes Pruden got his share of criticism over the years, some of it deserved, but "The Larry Sabato Rule" illustrates the basic soundness of Wes's news instincts. It is far more informative, in a story about politics, to quote sources who are directly involved in the process -- candidates, campaign staffers, state party officials and so forth. Relying on the "expert" political science professor as a source is a lazy excuse for reporting.

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