“ realclearpolitics.com - Independent website providing American political news, polls and extracts from media coverage. „
Do you know who's going to win this year's US presidential election?
No, neither do I. But if I want at any time to make an informed guess, I do know where to look for the requisite information on which to base it. This is certainly not in the British press, where even the quality nationals or serious news weeklies like The Economist can give no more than a superficial digest of the latest state of play. It is not even in the online editions of the American press, which would take an age to trawl through comprehensively. That is a job that I let my preferred source do for me, just as I am ready to rely on its reportage of recent speeches and campaign events, and above all on its comprehensive round-up and interpretation of the findings of the latest opinion polls, continually updated. Checking this source regularly does, I believe, give one as clear an understanding of what is going on politically in America as is available to an amateur bystander on this side of the Atlantic, though it does come with a caveat.
* The site and its provenance *
The source in question is the website www.realclearpolitics.com, which for brevity will be referred to as RCP from here on. Before I describe in detail what RCP has to offer, let's cover the caveat. I have to admit that when my attention was first drawn to the site in the run-up to the last presidential election in 2008 I at first treated it with some distrust. The first question an old cynic like me asks about any source of political news or comment is "where's the hidden agenda?", and from this perspective the provenance of RCP was not reassuring. It was launched in 2000 by two conservative-minded entrepreneurs from Illinois in order to counteract what they perceived as a left-wing prejudice in the mainstream media in their country. What's more, in 2007 Forbes Media, publishers of Forbes Magazine and other business publications, acquired a controlling interest in the site; the company's CEO Steve Forbes is a prominent Republican and even entered the race to be that party's nominee for President in 1996 and 2000. With ownership like that, the potential for right-wing bias - conscious or unconscious - is obvious and users would be naïve not to be on their guard against it.
For my own part, I kept on my guard throughout the site's coverage of the 2008 campaign, and on the whole my misgivings were quelled. This may be partly because I referred mostly to the factual data - the latest polling information and its electoral implications - rather than to the opinion pieces. But even the latter, when I did take the trouble to read them, seemed tolerably balanced - balanced, that is, collectively rather than individually, since a wide range of viewpoints were represented. This reflects the fact that relatively few were written by RCP staffers; mostly the site acts as an aggregator rather than an originator, providing links to a selection of political commentary in other media. Conceivably (I haven't attempted an analysis) right-wing commentators may be disproportionately represented. Even if so, I doubt it much matters since few users will read every piece and it is easy for any user so inclined to find their way to Democrat-leaning reportage and comment. As for the polls, the aim of the site is to provide statistically-sound averages of all respectably-conducted surveys rather than to conduct their own. Do they succeed? Well, in 2008, the final RCP projection calculated on this basis showed Obama leading in the popular vote by 7.6%, compared with an actual lead that emerged at 7.3%. In other words, not only did the RCP methodology produce an extremely accurate result by most polling standards, but certainly betrayed no anti-Obama bias. State-by-state projections similarly proved to be both highly reliable and non-partisan. Given that the RCP analysis also offered a wealth of detail not easily found elsewhere, I was sold and have followed it ever since.
* The site's contents, and how to find them *
Navigating around RCP is easy enough, though it has to be admitted that at first glance the home page looks dauntingly cluttered. This is because so much of it consists of links to other pages, associated sites or other media. A systematic look, however, soon sorts out what's what. Taking the day on which this review was written (May 4th 2012) as an example, we find:
~ Links to other media. Primarily in two places: in a central panel at the top of the home page are no fewer than twenty links to general political articles and editorials in prominent media ranging from the Washington Post through the Daily Telegraph to the Daily Beast; only one is to a contribution from an RCP staffer. Meanwhile, in another panel on the left are a further twenty-four categorised by topic (e.g. Battle for Congress, Economy, China), with title but no reference to source until you click the link. Clicking a couple at random I arrive at articles featured in a political blog called TheHill.com and The Guardian. And if you did want to study the RCP's own views, there is a further panel on the right, from which to click to seven stories, two of which are essentially poll summaries, but the rest are RCP reporting; arguably a Republican slant in their take on the relevant subjects, but a very minor element in the context of the whole page. Also, in a separate panel, links to current news stories as they break from a range of sources. And, further down, a reprise of links to yesterday's articles and stories in case you missed them.
~ Polls. To me, the meat of the site and usually the first place I look for new developments. A month ago you would have found the primary focus being on exactly that - primaries - but now it is on the presidential race itself, Obama versus Romney. Incidentally, to those who follow this section of RCP it was apparent a couple of months ago that Romney would secure the Republican nomination, from their state-by-state analysis of delegates available, mode of selection and local opinion polls; whatever superficial waves Perry, Santorum or Gingrich might have been making, the underlying maths worked remorselessly in Romney's favour. Anyway, as a matter of interest, today's RCP national poll average shows Obama at 47.5% leading Romney with 44.1%; if I want to know on which polls this is based, and what they show individually, a click will tell me, together with sample sizes, selection method and all those other details dear to the heart of any market researcher. Plus recent trends in the findings of each of these sources. Clicks through to other polling pages will tell me about the current president's approval ratings, those for congress, and popular views on a number of politically pertinent topics. There is not much, as yet, about the outlook for the various senate, house of representatives and gubernatorial contests scheduled for this coming November, but as the date approaches I have no doubt - from previous experience - that this omission will be more than remedied.
~ Projections. The percentage of the popular vote won is not, of course, the crucial statistic in an American presidential election. If it were, Gore would have won in 2000 irrespective of the shenanigans in Florida, and we would have been spared eight years of George W. The crucial statistics relate to how the popular vote divides in individual states, and how majorities in those states translate into votes in the resultant electoral college. So, naturally, RCP presents us with a map of their projections, based on the current findings of opinion polls within each state. Today, RCP is projecting 253 electoral college votes going to Obama, and 170 to Romney, with the remaining 115 too close to call (or "toss up" in RCP parlance). How close is too close to call? Let's click on Florida, one of the nine states in this category, and one that commands no fewer than 29 electoral college votes. We find that the average of 5 polls in that state is showing Obama at 45.4% and Romney at 45.0%, but the polls with the most recent fieldwork dates are marginally favouring Romney. Yes, that sounds too close to call in anyone's language. By contrast, California's 55 electoral votes indeed look very safe for Obama (with a lead of no less than 23%) and Texas's 38 reasonably safe for Romney (with a lead of 7%). All a bit moot, perhaps, at this stage in the game, but, come October, I shall be watching daily for any change in the colour on the map of a high-value swing state.
~ Links to video clips...of recent speeches by major political figures, interviews, commenters, and so forth. For those who like their information animated rather than graphic. Today with have a selection of twelve offerings, including the latest speeches by Obama and Romney.
~ Archive material. One of the joys of the site for those who looking for a historical perspective who are too lazy to seek separate information from other sources. So, for example, looking at that big current poll lead for Obama in California, I can quickly check how it relates to his result in 2008 (extremely similar; the outcome being +23.8% following a final RCP projection of +24.4%); on the other hand, Romney is not yet doing as well as McCain in Texas (11.7% and 13% respectively, compared to his 7%). Maybe I should look at 2004 as well to study the trend - or maybe on this occasion even I am not that much of an enthusiast for this sort of exercise to bother. But it's all there if anyone wants it.
~ Links to the RCP presence on Facebook and Twitter.
~ Links to sister sites. Yes, you have a choice of Real Clear Markets (business and financial news, comment and opinion), Real Clear World (an attempt to cover the world of which so few Americans seem aware, the one outside the USA), Real Clear Sports (almost entirely American sport, but there is a link for 'world soccer coverage'), Real Clear Science (with some accessible coverage if one can find the time to study it), Real Clear Technology (ditto, and not too obscure), Real Clear Religion, Real Clear Energy, and Real Clear History (which is mainly current articles on historical events and book reviews). All or any of these could be of some value to those with an interest in these subjects, but there is little that cannot be found elsewhere, and personally I would never choose any of them as my main source as I do with RCP for American politics.
* Recommendation *
Whether we like it or not, what goes on in American politics affects us all, and even though we cannot affect it, there is every reason to try to keep abreast, especially in a presidential election year. The Real Clear Politics website is the ideal tool with which to do so. The round-ups of comment and opinion are always stimulating and informative, though one needs of course to be wary of any bias, and its polling data are especially valuable - independent, wide-ranging and well-presented. Anyone with a penchant for statistics as well as politics will find it fascinating. The main weakness of the site - apart from the partisan background of its owners - is that it coverage of the world outside the America is superficial at best. But this is not really a problem over here, where we have plenty of sources of world news. What is harder to find over here is equivalent in-depth coverage of politics in the USA. If you're at all interested in that, go and have a look at RCP.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012