Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pushing the Panic Button

When I was a journalism student in college, one of my professors said something that remains with me today. "Use real quotes whenever you can," this professor said. "People like to read what other people have to say."

Unless the article is clearly a personal opinion piece, he continued, readers don't care what the reporter has to say about anything. They only want the reporter to give them an account that is as complete — and as completely neutral — as possible.

Readers are interested in opinions, of course — which goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the public's fascination with public opinion polling.

Public opinion polling is an emerging science, and I believe many (regretfully, not all, but many) of its practitioners do try to learn from mistakes, theirs and others'. Pollsters in the mid–1930s learned from the Literary Digest's mistakes when the Digest predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would lose his bid for re–election in 1936 (primarily car and/or home telephone owners were polled, and those were two things that only the affluent could afford during the Great Depression, so the poll was skewed ).

Pollsters learned from their experience in 1948 — when Dewey defeated Truman — that, if you decide a race is a foregone conclusion and stop polling two weeks before the election, you do so at your own peril.

That kind of stuff seems like common sense today, but there was a time when it was not obvious. I honestly believe most pollsters really do want to be right so they try to make adjustments that will improve the efficiency of their polling.

It is still important to remember that all polls are not conducted equally. You need to know who is behind a poll and whether that person or group has a reputation for leaning to one side or the other. You need to know how questions are worded — even the slightest variation can affect the results, and some pollsters do choose certain words that are likely to get the kind of response they want.

(For such people, I suppose, a good thesaurus is the most valuable professional investment they can make.)

Those are issues that have affected polling all along, but new issues always crop up. For example, American law prevents pollsters from calling phone owners who will be charged simply for answering the call so people whose only phone is a cell phone will be underrepresented — and that affects certain demographic groups (the young, the poor, etc.) more than others.

That's the thing about polling. It's a work in progress.

Personally, I tend to favor Gallup. Gallup has been around much longer, and it has more credibility than the others, more of a reputation for neutrality.

But I pay attention to the others as well. Even if they have a bias of some kind, they can still tell you things about the public mood.

Having said that, I think there are a lot of messages coming from two polls that have come out in recent days — particularly the Washington Post/ABC News poll but also the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

As usual, though, the two sides are only interested in hearing what they want to hear — or reacting (perhaps overreacting is the better word) to results that seem to jeopardize their agenda.

Well, here we are, six months before the midterm elections, and there is a lot in the Washington Post/ABC News poll to worry members of the president's party, especially those who will be on the ballot this year. After all, the Washington Post and ABC News have been friendly to the administration.

By and large, Barack Obama's agenda is the Democratic Party's agenda. That is usually the case with an incumbent president. His party is his army. It takes its marching orders from him. So, even though the president's name will not be on the ballot in the sixth year of his presidency, he still hovers over this election like a Shakespearean ghost. His approval will have a huge influence on the outcome — and, historically, sixth–year midterms have not been kind to presidents.

Dan Balz and Peyton Craighill of the Washington Post observe that Obama's current approval rating is the lowest it has been since the Post began measuring it early in his presidency — 41%. That was Harry Truman's approval rating in May 1950; that November, Truman's approval was unchanged, and his party lost 29 House seats and six Senate seats.

Truman's successor, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, is the only postwar president whose approval clearly went up between May and late October in his sixth year (from 52% to 57%), but his party lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats.

Since the end of World War II, there have been seven presidents (or presidential teams) who faced a sixth–year midterm. In almost every case, their approval in spring of the midterm year was higher than their approval shortly before the election in November.

And only Bill Clinton, whose approval ratings were in the 60s in his sixth–year midterm, avoided losing ground in Congress, thanks primarily to the backlash over the Republicans' attempt to remove him from office.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates there are a number of areas where work needs to be done.

Balz and Craighill speculate that Obamacare will be a major issue, as it almost certainly will. A plurality in the Washington Post/ABC News poll opposes Obamacare. Nearly 60% of respondents say Obamacare is raising health care costs.

But that isn't the only thing that has Democrats pushing the panic button.

Balz and Craighill also write that "[p]essimism about the economy also persists, with more than seven in 10 describing the economy in negative terms. Public attitudes about the future of the economy are anything but rosy. Just 28 percent say they think the economy is getting better, while 36 percent say it is getting worse and 35 percent say it's staying the same."

Part of that, I am sure, has to do with the increased costs of health care, but it also has to do with the recovery, which has been as tepid as a recovery can be.

Two–thirds of the poll's respondents say the country is going in the wrong direction — an ominous conclusion for a sixth–year incumbent's constituents to reach.

Strategists for both parties are certainly keeping an eye on the 2016 races for the party nominations, which is addressed in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That poll found that nearly 70% of respondents don't want either Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton to be the next president.

The news in that poll was slightly better for Obama — it showed his approval rating at 44%, but that isn't very encouraging. It is still lower than Obama's rating at this point in 2010.

Perhaps we'll get a better idea of how the recovery is coming along when the latest jobless report comes out on Friday.

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