An American’s right to vote is much more than the power of his pen at the ballot box, it is her ability to express a well informed choice of representation in governance behind that hallowed curtain. In the First Amendment, the freedom of America’s press to provide her citizen’s with that information was indelibly inscribed and that solemn responsibility was laid on the doorstep of the Fourth Estate.
Through the weekend beginning on June 17th, the Florida Press Association and the Florida Society of News Editors held a forum for the candidates vying for the gubernatorial and senate seats in the state. The line up for the senate race included Christ, Rubio, Green, and Meeks while Alex Sink, Bill McCollum, and Bud Chiles came with hopes to add Governor of Florida to their resumes. An impressive list of choices for sure, yet even more impressive was who was not there; and why.
An invitation to the Florida Press Associations’ event was contingent on scoring 10% popularity in the most recent Quinnipiac Poll, according to Dean Ridings, President of the FPA. On June 10th, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut released the results of a poll it conducted with 1,133 residents of the state of Florida. Several candidates were not mentioned in the poll thus had no hope of scoring the paltry 10% admission fee to the event. “It was not a perfect solution, but we had to draw the line somewhere,” said Mr. Riding citing that logistics made it impossible to include all 36 candidates.
One of those candidates, Alex Snitker, did not grumble about being excluded, he went anyway. Florida’s first ever Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate was frustrated at his repeated exclusion from the state’s mainstream media, “I called my media rep and said ‘we got to get down there’”. Adrian Wylie then placed a call to Dean Ridings informing him of Snitker’s attendance and was again refused an invitation. Seizing the opportunity provided by a pause in the program, Snitker rose to the open mike after Kendrick Meeks stepped down. “I’m the one from the people, not some career politician…the people want to hear from me.” Disruption was not the candidate’s intention but the Herald Tribune told the story of a man who kicked in a set of double doors, rushed the podium and snatched the microphone from the shocked hand of the speaker. In the top right corner of page 2B, a photo of Alex Snitker (sans microphone) is followed with the headline ‘a fight over the microphone’. The miniature caption says that Snitker “delayed the state press associations’ candidates forum at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota for about 15 minutes Thursday when he angrily grabbed a floor microphone and demanded to be included in the forum.” The photo also shows FPA President Dean Ridings asking Mr. Snitker to leave.
All of this drama over a poll? When the issue at stake is the trust that the voter has placed in his press to provide the necessary information for a truly enlightened choice of representation, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’. Polls are interesting pieces of research but few people are aware of key factors influencing both the questions and the responses to any poll. Polls, especially political ones, are not conducted out of any kind-hearted interest to discern the opinion of the general voting public; they are requested and contracted. Scientific polls choose respondents according to pre-determined criteria while voluntary polls depend solely on voluntary participation and thus become less reliable.
Perhaps more critical is the wording of questions. When asked, “If the 2010 election for United States Senator were being held today and the candidates were Kendrick Meek the Democrat, Marco Rubio the Republican, and Charlie Crist running as an independent candidate, for whom would you vote?”, a respondent is unreliably constricted and will offer only an answer based on the specific choices provided. The June 9th results of the Quinnipiac poll, on which the Florida Press Association based candidate invitation criteria, are an exemplary illustration of questionable polling results.
Another point of contention in polling is the margin of error. Jeff Greene scored 11% on the query, “Is your opinion of - Jeff Greene favorable, unfavorable or haven't you heard enough about him?” and was invited to speak. Had the +/- 2.9% margin of error been applied, Greene would have fell short of inclusion. Accepted polling theory supports that with properly worded questions, the responses of 1,000 people can reliably represent the views of 185 million. Bud Chiles, the Independent candidate for governor, was invited to the forum with 13%, however, only 435 registered voters were asked about Chiles. Add that to a +/- 4.7% margin of error and serious questions can be raised as to the viability of that data. Phone calls and emails to the Quinnipiac polling institute asking for clarification of the criteria for the June poll have gone unanswered as of this writing.
All polling aside, what was lost in this situation was not publicity for Alex Snitker, Daniel Imperato, Karl Behm, Brian More, Bobbie Bean, Piotr Blass, Bernie DeCastro and a long list of others, but a genuine opportunity for the 100+ members of the media present at the Florida Press Assiciation/Florida Society of Editors’ forum to transmit a wealth of information to their readers. When the mainstream media in Florida choose to restrict the voters’ choice, logistically or otherwise, they contributed to the erosion of their own credibility. In an era where the publics trust in the media is already on shaky ground, the keys to the Fourth Estate could very well be passed into more capable hands.