Polls don’t always tell the truth. That doesn’t mean they lie; it just means they can be misleading.
An example could be found if one followed the polls during Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race between Rand Paul and Jack Conway. In late May Paul was embroiled in a controversy after making remarks to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Soon after, he received negative national headlines for calling President Barack Obama’s handling of the BP Oil Spill un-American.
Less than a week after those comments, on May 30, the Kentucky Bluegrass Poll showed Rand Paul with a six-point lead over Jack Conway.
The national narrative continued to follow Paul. His comments about an underground fence that would keep illegal immigrants out of the country were followed by lack of knowledge about Kentucky coal mining history and his beliefs that government should stay out of coal mining regulations.
Paul’s lead in the Bluegrass poll was eight points on Aug. 2.
Two weeks before the election, Conway, Paul’s opponent, ran his infamous Aqua Buddha ad, attacking Paul’s Christian faith in an ad that recalled a drunken story from Paul’s past at Baylor University.
The poll released soon after showed Paul up by nine points.
A statewide reaction to national media?
“I’m not sure you can actually say that,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “There are other factors involved.”
One of these factors is name recognition. Nationally, Paul received much more press than Conway and it didn’t always matter if it was positive.
“Early in the summer, Paul’s name was mentioned more often,” Cross said.
No one is saying this was a scientific study of how the national media affected polling in Kentucky. It would be extremely hard to prove cause and effect and nearly as difficult to establish a correlation between the two. But it does highlight the fact that national coverage was much different during this election in Kentucky compared to nationally.
“They’re necessarily different,” Cross said. “The Kentucky coverage; much of it was aimed at informing the electorate. The national coverage was aimed at the more sensational or horserace aspects of it. The national press didn’t feel much of an obligation to inform the electorate; their interest was national.”
And the national media had their own storyline to follow.
“The national media had a general narrative that they wanted to work with,” said Scott McClurg, associate professor in political science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “That narrative focused on people like Rand Paul. You had liberals saying these people were all nuts. On the other hand you had the conservative media saying these were just normal people and voters could trust them to act normally.
“The people in Kentucky didn’t have any interest in that. Accordingly, the local media is going to think of what works for them. The national narrative wasn’t that important to them.”
Coverage of the Kentucky Senate race ended up with different narratives. What McClurg termed entertainment politics media, the pundits who speak on both the left and the right and who served the purpose of magnifying Paul’s statements, ended up commandeering the national narrative. They had reason to add fuel to the race. It was interesting; or at least Paul was an interesting story.
“He was the first Tea Party candidate to be nominated in a primary,” Cross said. “He was the first one and he strongly associated himself with the Tea Party and when he gave his acceptance speech he barely mentioned the Republican Party. He identified himself as a ‘Tea Partier.’”
Add to that Paul’s pedigree, his father is Congressman Ron Paul, who gained a large cult following during his run for President in 2008. Mix in Rand Paul’s predilection for the outrageous statement and you have an interesting candidate.
He was going to receive massive media coverage during the election cycle. His comments, his behavior as a student at Baylor with the Aqua Buddha incident, all of this added fuel to the fire; yet Cross said that most of the coverage toward Paul was fair.
“I think so, with the one possible exception,” Cross said. “Early in the primary, more than a year ago, he was the darling of Fox News. Fox News is kind of the Mecca for conservative news and Fox News was important in giving him his start. They ate him up they liked him so much. I don’t know if they were trying to promote him but that was the effect.”
At the same time, Kentucky media played on the race between Conway and Paul.
Andrew Thomason covered the race for the Bowling Green Daily News, Paul’s hometown.
“To me, paying attention to the national stuff it seemed like they were more focused on national issues,” Thomason said. “When Rand Paul was talking about drug funding, the national media focused on how that affected the campaign rather than the issue. In Kentucky, we covered the issue. It was just a matter of what the audience needed more.”
For Kentuckians, the story was the race. It didn’t matter that the story was national; the race was important.
“It’s exciting to cover a race that made the front page of the New York Times,” Thomason said. “It seemed to encompass or be a microcosm of a larger national narrative for this election.”
Maybe that’s why the national narrative seemed to be unimportant to Paul’s placement in the polls. It was the local narrative that was being followed.