Bernie’s Good Polls Keep Getting Bad Coverage

Since his heart attack in early October, Bernie Sanders has stormed the campaign trail, breathed fire at the fourth Democratic primary debates and garnered key endorsements from political stars like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. The Bernie campaign’s new momentum led to a noticeable bounce in the Vermont Senator’s polling numbers. Well, at least it would have been noticeable if mainstream news let anybody notice it.

Sanders finished first at 21% in an Oct. 29 CNN poll of New Hampshire Democratic voters. He was also first among independents and Democrats who didn’t vote in 2016. But online and on television, CNN covered their own poll in a puzzling way. Fresh from coloring Bernie extra-pink, CNN posted web headlines that were misleading and featured numbers that simply didn’t add up.

CNN wasn’t alone in selling Sanders short. The New York Times ran a headline suggesting Sanders was slipping in both New Hampshire and Iowa, while the article reported that Sanders polled at first and second in those states, respectively. It’s almost as if people at CNN and the Times know most people don’t read past the headlines.

And maybe CNN is counting on people not reading past the text on the bottom of the screen even when the numbers right above it tell a different story.

Even purported expert poll-readers aren’t above creatively interpreting Sanders’ polling numbers. In October, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted about the site’s post-debate polling, describing Elizabeth Warren as one of the “most improved” candidates in net favorability while characterizing Sanders’ results as “meh.” But meh and most improved were one and the same. The chart he referred to showed both Warren and Sanders’ net favorability increased by 2.2%.

Sanders supporters have long suspected reporters like The New York Times’s Sydney Embers of anti-Bernie bias. But the misleading poll number reporting is different. It isn’t a matter of emphasizing or ignoring details or questionable choices about framing ideas to report a preferred narrative. This is about manipulating numbers to cover holes over the reality that Sanders is polling well in key states and will likely remain in the race for the long haul.

Following Sanders’ strong polling in Iowa and New Hampshire, some journalists are coming around. Appearing on CNN, the Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan said he’s taking Bernie’s chances seriously and urged his media colleagues to do the same. In the meantime, coverage of Sanders’ polling has become so comical even The Onion is lampooning it.  And in a tweet, Washington Post campaign reporter David Weigel mocked how often media overlooks and ignores positive Sanders poll numbers. It was a good joke. But as the first primaries inch closer, the truth is getting less and less funny.