Today’s Financial Times bears a banner headline on p.1: “US election hangs on a knife edge”. Aside from everything else, surely this gets the cliche wrong: you rest on a knife edge, don’t you? If you try to hang on one, I think you just cut off your fingers.
More important, though, this headline deeply misleads readers about the state of the race — and in so doing, it echoes a lot of political reporting right now. Quite simply, many of the “analysis” articles being published in these final days leave readers worse informed than they were before reading.
As Nate Silver (who has lately attracted a remarkable amount of hate — welcome to my world, Nate!) clearly explains, state polling currently points overwhelmingly to an Obama victory. It’s possible that the polls are systematically biased — and this bias has to encompass almost all the polls, since even Rasmussen is now showing Ohio tied. So Romney might yet win. But a knife-edge this really isn’t, and any reporting suggesting that it is makes you stupider.
Worse yet, some reporting tells readers things the reporters have to know aren’t true. How many stories have you seen declaring that “both sides think they’re winning”? No, they don’t: the Romney campaign is visibly flailing, trying desperately to find new fronts on which to attack Obama. They clearly know that it will take a miracle — sorry, a last-minute surge — to prevail on Tuesday. It’s OK, I guess, to report campaign spin; but surely it’s not OK to report campaign spin as the truth, which is what these stories are doing.
Again, as Nate says, it’s definitely possible that the polls are systematically wrong. The obvious ways they could go wrong, cell phones and Latinos, favor Obama rather than Romney; but maybe pollsters are overcompensating for these factors, or maybe there’s a large Bradley effect distorting poll responses. Reporting about these possibilities would be interesting.
But reporting that suggests that this is a too-close-to-call race doesn’t get at any of this; it’s just lazy, and a disservice to readers.