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October 13, 2005
The Free Fall That Wasn't

Dan Froomkin wrote a breathless column for today's web edition of the Washington Post that should have been pulled. Instead, the Post allowed it to remain on the site with a buried nugget that negated the entire thrust of his article. Titled "A Polling Free-Fall Among Blacks", Froomkin related the findings of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that supposedly gave George Bush a 2% approval rating among African-Americans:

In what may turn out to be one of the biggest free-falls in the history of presidential polling, President Bush's job-approval rating among African Americans has dropped to 2 percent, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The drop among blacks drove Bush's overall job approval ratings to an all-time low of 39 percent in this poll. By comparison, 45 percent of whites and 36 percent of Hispanics approve of the job Bush is doing.

Given that George Bush got 9% of that vote in 2000 and 11% of it in 2004, a nine-point drop in real support among this single demographic doesn't sound like a spectacular surprise, especially given the terrible media performance surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Froomkin makes sure to stage it as dramatically as possible, however:

A few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Bush's approval rating among blacks at 51 percent. As recently as six months ago, it was at 19 percent.

Wow. Now that sounds pretty impressive, but only if the reader has no sense of electoral history or common sense about polling immediately after the real and imagined frustrations surrounding the catastrophe response. Froomkin gets a quote from a professional pollster who says he's never seen such a dramatic plunge in any subgroup.

Well ... there may be a reason for that. In the ninth paragraph, Froomkin finally gets around to discussing the methodology of the poll. It turns out that the entire sample consisted of only 807 adults -- not voters or likely voters -- only 89 of which were African-Americans. Froomkin notes, with apparently no sense of irony whatsoever, that the "margin or [sic] error" on this pathetic sample would be ... "considerable".

In other words, it's ludicrous and simply folly to use it for a report. Bear in mind, however, that Froomkin wasn't alone in spouting it to the world. Tim Russert repeated it on Wednesday night's NBC network news show with Brian Williams.

But it gets better -- or worse, depending on your point of view -- if the reader holds out to the fourteenth paragraph. The Post updates the story thus:

[Late Update: The Pew Research Center is just out with its latest poll, which has a larger sample, and it finds Bush's approval rating among blacks at 12 percent, down only slightly from 14 in July. Here are those results.]

So the biggest free-fall in history has George Bush losing 2 points among a demographic which proportionally voted for him in reality one point lower last November than where he shows now. All of the numbers in the Pew poll fall within the margin of error -- which means Bush hasn't fallen at all among African-Americans.

No self-respecting blogger would leave a post up like that, at least not without a bold-type disclaimer at the top of the text directing readers to the latest update first. That must show what all those levels of editors and fact-checkers get readers of the Washington Post.

UPDATE: CQ reader and night owl Kyle H. just saw Conan O'Brian use the 2% polling number on his show. Welcome to the birth of an urban legend, yet another one from the fertile womb of Katrina.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 13, 2005 10:53 PM

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