So here's the breathless headline from a post at Talking Points Memo (TPM), the progressive news-and-commentary site that supports Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election: "Clinton Leads By Double-Digits in New National Poll."
Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Just like good old Charlie Brown, Hillary Clinton is finally going to win a game, kick the football held by Lucy, slip free of the kite-eating tree, and all that!
Hillary Clinton comes out ahead by 10 points in a new poll of likely voters nationwide from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Clinton bests Donald Trump in the ballot, 50-40, in a head-to-head match.
OK, but what happens when you add in Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein, the other two candidates for whom Americans in all 50 states can vote? The former Secretary of State still leads the GOP candidate, but not by double digits. Now Clinton's lead shrinks to single digits, with Clinton at 45 percent, Trump at 36 percent, Johnson at 11 percent, and Stein at 3 percent. Caveat lector and all that: These are small samples with high margins of error, yadda yadda yadda.
Why do we even bother with polls that don't include all national candidates? The only reason is because doing so perpetuates the two-party duopoly that managed to produce candidates that are the most disliked in recorded U.S. history. TPM runs a handy-dandy "poll tracker" that allows users to aggregate various polls. Needless to say, the site's default tracker isn't set to four-way polls. Of course not, because TPM, like so much of the legacy and new media wants this race to be about Hillary and the Donald. It's easier that way, isn't it?
So what happens if you select four-way polls? Here you go:
While Clinton is slumping in both scenarios, the latter one is drearier still, as it shows low but stable support for Johnson, who really is a fly in the ointment, isn't he? A socially liberal yet fiscally conservative two-term former governor whose running mate is the same. Who needs more choices in a race that "feels like a joke" for some and picking between "cholera and gonorrhea" for others?
I'm a regular reader of TPM, which is one of the most-impressive online outlets around. I disagree with most of its analysis, but that's really neither here nor there. But I'm always left wondering why media sites, regardless of their ideological orientation (or professed lack of a political POV) foreground and even commission two-candidate polls. It's so transparently a false way of talking about everyday reality and it's so obviously in the service of shoring up a stultifying binary system of harshly limited choice that has broken down in every other area of our lives.
For me, the situation is reminiscent of what happened when the music industry begrudgingly embraced SoundScan, a service that collected actual point-of-sale data to generate its charts of top-selling albums and singles. Prior to the adoption of SoundScan in the early 1990s, Brian Wawaznek described how Billboard created its charts:
Billboard began publishing a chart of the top albums in 1945. It had gone through many permutations and names over the years, based on the rising popularity of the LP and numerous shifts in the music industry. But before 1991, one thing stayed the same: the method for determining the chart positions. The magazine used a survey method, in which staff members called record stores and retail outlets all over the U.S. and took the managers' word on what had been selling during the past week.
Big record labels were expert at gaming the system in all sorts of ways and because of the amount of power it gave them to push whatever they wanted, they had no real interest in changing things and adopting a new system even (or especially) one that reflected actual consumer taste. Wawaznek notes that best-seller lists tend to generate more sales of whatever is on them. While the labels and large segments of the radio industry were invested heavily in certain types of rock music, once SoundScan started counting what people actually bought, it turned out that country, rap, and heavy metal, genres that suits and mainstream critics tended to disdain, were far more popular than good, old American rock 'n' roll. "Both N.W.A and Skid Row sat atop the Billboard 200 in the first month of the SoundScan era," he writes. "Two albums by [country star Garth] Brooks, and Metallica's Black Album [sat] among records by Natalie Cole and Michael Bolton" at the top of 1991's best-seller charts. And the rock-descended music that listeners really wanted didn't sound like the Bob Seger or The Allman Brothers.
The best example of the changing musical landscape forged by SoundScan is Nirvana and the band's blockbuster album Nevermind. Would it have been a blockbuster before SoundScan? A 1992 article in Spin magazine deemed a No. 1 album by Nirvana "unthinkable" before the new era, suggesting that the "charts don't just report tastes; they amplify and shape them."
Here's how it happened: Nevermind and its accompanying lead single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," come out a few months after Billboard publishes its first SoundScan chart. Buzz builds on alternative radio, around the Nirvana tour and within the industry, which results in decent album sales, which are now accurately reported on the Billboard chart. Others, like MTV and mainstream rock radio, begin to take notice of the numbers. They start playing Nirvana. More fans hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Metalheads come around. Old guys who haven't bought an album in 10 years get interested. Pop fans embrace Nirvana. Requests to radio go way up. Sales take a huge jump. In only a few months, the alt-rock underdogs dethrone the King of Pop on the top of the Billboard 200.
Nevermind has been called a game-changer. It was. It is. But it probably doesn't get close to being a landmark album without the industry game-changer of SoundScan.
Let's return to politics: Like the old record labels and the critical tastemakers who supported it, the media and the two major parties are deeply invested in a political status quo that is crumbling in front of us. Even without polls (charts) that represent our full range of choices, fewer and fewer of us identify as Republicans and Democrats. Eventually we'll get to a point where the cognitive dissonance between what NBC, Fox, The New York Times, and even new-media outlets such as TPM want and what the rest of us actually believe gets so big that they'll have to change the way they think and talk about politics. That moment will likely come sooner if the media followed the race as it actually is rather than how they would like it to be, but it will come eventually.
There's an old saying that you shouldn't confuse the map with the territory it's trying to represent. The way we talk about presidential elections is at best misleading and at worst purposefully mendacious. But it won't be the supporters of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein who will be surprised when they realize their "map" has left them stranded in the wilderness.