On Tuesday evening, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow accused Fox News of picking and choosing which polls to use when determining which candidates would make it into the first Republican primary debate. Was she right?
Maddow pointed out that Fox News promised to use the five most recent nationally-recognized polls. However, Fox News omitted an NBC/WSJ poll, despite being the fifth-most-recent respected national poll. Instead, the network included an earlier poll from Quinnipiac. The result was that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was not tied for tenth place with John Kasich, and instead finished eleventh, relegating himself to the earlier non-primetime debate. Maddow claimed that “it appears that what they did is just kick out the poll results that would make it look too close,” and accused the network of moving the goal-post.
But Maddow is wrong on at least one point: It’s actually not true that Fox News “arbitrarily” ignored a poll they should have included, as the network itself announced hours before Maddow went on the air.
One of the standards that Fox used was that polls had to “[mirror] the ballot by reading all candidate names in random order and without honorifics.” The NBC/WSJ poll did not. As Fox News wrote (again, hours before Maddow went on the air):
We did not include the highly-respected NBC/WSJ poll, which is the fifth most recent poll, only because it did not meet our criterion that the poll read the names of each Republican candidate in the vote question. We would note, however, even though their ballot question included Perry but did not name Kasich, the unaided “Kasich” response tied the aided “Perry” response. In short, their results are consistent with the results of the other polls in our review, and consistent with the resulting placement in the Fox News debate.
This isn’t some arbitrary selection criteria Fox conjured out of thin air. By listing Perry and not Kasich, the NBC/WSJ poll put Kasich at a distinct disadvantage in the polling, and he still tied. If Perry had actually won in that poll, Kasich would have rightfully howled that Fox went with a poll that discriminated against another candidate.
Furthermore, a political scientist wrote for The Hill on Tuesday that Maddow’s and Jon Stewart‘s criticisms of the “arbitrary” Fox decisions were based on a “totally mistaken” understanding of margin of error. On Monday, the stat-heads at FiveThirtyEight defended Fox’s polling decisions by writing that “There’s no perfect way to sort the candidates for a debate primary.”
But what makes Maddow’s argument all the more suspect is that throughout the run up to the debates, Fox News has been consistent in saying they were more than happy to have eleven or more candidates in the event of a tie. In fact, this reporter can say from experience that when he initially wrote that the debate would be limited to ten individuals, Fox News immediately sought to correct the record. They’ve gone out of their way to avoid the perception that the debate would definitely only have ten candidates.
It may very well be that Maddow is right, and Fox News chose their selection criteria in a self-serving way (this is a business, after all). But in framing Fox’s decision as “arbitrary” and lacking in rhyme or reason, Maddow overstepped.
UPDATE — 08/05/15, 9:31 p.m. ET: We received the follow from the Rachel Maddow show:
We are saying what was released yesterday was different from what the network said back in May. Before Fox announced who was in and out of their debate, Fox never before specified this as a criterion that polls would have to meet in order to be included in their “five most recent national polls” average:
• Their GOP primary vote question mirrored the ballot by reading all candidate names in random order and without honorifics.
Fox asserted on August 4th that NBC/WSJ was excluded because it did not meet that specific criterion, but they had never announced that criterion before August 4th. A surprise to everyone, announced after the fact.
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