Thursday, February 20, 2014

Who is way ahead in MA Governor polling? The candidate whose name voters know

Party schisms are not the reason for difference between Coakley's lead in polls and Grossman's lead in caucus delegates

The race to replace Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is heating up as the Massachusetts Democratic Party conducts local caucuses to determine delegates to state convention. Candidates must win the first votes of 15 percent of the delegates to get on the primary ballot and the candidates have been working to line up pledged delegates at the caucuses.

Polls of the general electorate have shown Attorney General Martha Coakley with a commanding lead, while Treasurer Steve Grossman is the leader in pledged delegates. A National Journal article suggests that "discrepancy between Coakley's lead in the polls and Grossman's strength among the party faithful represents a schism between activists still wary of Coakley after her 2010 loss and a general electorate that's more forgiving."

In fact, Coakley's lead in the polls is due to the fact that she is the only candidate known to the majority of the voting electorate. The latest Suffolk/Boston Herald poll shows that a full 82% of the voters have an opinion of Coakley, while only 35% have an opinion of Grossman.

Name recognition of MA Gov candidates (Suffolk)

While there are plenty of factions and strong opinions about the best candidate within the party activists and elected officials who attend the Democratic convention, it is clear from the polling the larger set of people who vote in Democratic primaries do not know the candidates well enough to provide much insight into the outcome of the primary on September 9, 2014.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The democratization of data journalism

A report on the MassINC Big Data and the Future of Journalism panel discussion

The proliferation of interesting and easy-to-access internet-based data combined with fast computers and free or cheap analysis and visualization tools are democratizing and popularizing the field of data journalism. But what are the rules, parameters, and guidelines for this work which, like its name, bridges the worlds of data and statistics on one hand, and traditional journalism on the other?

This was the subject of a fascinating panel discussion at Boston's District Hall sponsored by MassINC, Google, WBUR, and the Knight Foundation. The introduction was given by the President of the MassINC Polling Group, Steve Koczela, who set the stage by giving an overview of the data journalism field and the work being done at the MassINC Polling Group. The debate was thoughtfully moderated by Northeastern professor and media commentator Dan Kennedy, who kept the discussion moving and asked important questions that allowed each of the panelists to provide their particular insight into this hard-to-nail-down subject area.

Laura Amico of Homicide Watch and WBUR's Learning Lab recommended data journalism driven by classic journalistic inquiry, combined with thoughtful collection of journalistic data, but augmented by categorization and analysis of the data with simple tools like spreadsheets in order to shed quantitative light on the driving questions. The idea is to turn regular reporting into structured data that can enable more powerful reporting.

Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth Magazine also comes to data journalism from a traditional journalistic angle, but Paul has augmented his journalistic chops by embracing tools like Google Fusion Tables to synthesize data from publicly available sources to produce maps and tell stories. His message was that traditional journalists and their organizations should dive head first into learning these new tools. He emphasized that data journalism does not have to be a major investment, given the availability of the tools.

John Bracken is Director of Media Innovation for the Knight Foundation and is primarily concerned with supporting and nurturing innovative journalists that can make use of data journalism tools to improve the world. He is fostering innovation to increase the impact, scope, and efficacy of data journalism.

Charlie Kravetz is the General Manager of WBUR. He is trying to figure out if data journalism could be the savior of the journalism and deserves significant investment, or whether it is just a passing thing. Charlie also wondered whether journalism and writing skills are mutually exclusive with mathematical and statistical skills (answer: No, evidence: Nate Silver and many others). He was unimpressed with a visualization of Manhattan income inequality shown in the opening slide deck.

My take on the panel discussion:
  • Not all data journalism is good data journalism—it can use flawed statistical methods or analysis, or be uninteresting or unimportant from a journalistic point of view. The presence of a bad article or uninteresting data visualization does not mean data journalism is a bad thing or unimportant.
  • While it is good for journalists to branch out and get comfortable with analytical tools, at some point journalists—at least those without strong mathematics backgrounds—will come up against a wall where an understanding of statistics is important to do analysis or decide whether a particular model or argument is valid. Once this wall is reached it is important to seek additional training, or work with a subject area expert (similar to the function Steve Koczela serves for MassINC and CommonWealth Magazine). 
  • While the overlap between good writers/journalists with good statisticians/programmers might be small, they exist and will probably be valuable to news organizations.
I hope these interesting discussions continue in Boston and throughout the journalism community. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

MA Governor polling takeaway: low name recognition makes head-to-head numbers meaningless

Martha Coakley is only candidate known to a majority of voters

The race to replace Deval Patrick as Massachusetts Governor has begun to take shape with five Democrats, two Republicans, and three independent candidates indicating their a candidacy. The press release and news coverage of the latest poll from Suffolk University and the Boston Herald plays up the head-to-head match-ups between Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, Republican former Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Charlie Baker, and other candidates. However, the polling shows that the vast majority of the Massachusetts voters have never heard of most of the candidates and only Coakley is known well enough that a majority of voters have a favorable or unfavorable opinion.

Suffolk poll Governor name recognition

The Suffolk poll asked respondents to judge the candidates favorably or unfavorably, allowing them to opt out as having never heard of the candidate, or as not yet having an opinion of the candidate. I have divided the respondents into Has Opinion (for favorable or unfavorable) and No Opinion (for never-heard-of or undecided), and sorted the table by Has Opinion.

A full 82% of those surveyed had an opinion of Martha Coakley, the sitting Attorney General of the Commonwealth and former U.S. Senate candidate. Only 49% of respondents had an opinion of Charlie Baker, a fairly surprising number given his Republican nomination and run as a challenger to Governor Deval Patrick in 2010. While Baker may find it concerning to be known by so few, he might hope it works to his advantage by allowing him to rebrand himself in a way that is more appealing to women and Democrats, voting blocks that shunned him in 2010.

Treasurer Steve Grossman was known to 35% of the respondents, former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem to 11% of respondents, and the remaining candidates were all below 10%.

There is plenty of useful information in these early polls, including information about the makeup of electorate, issues that are deemed important by the voters, and opinions about topics that may play a roll like casino gambling, but it makes sense to hold off on predicting likely election outcomes until the voters have a chance to get to know the candidates.