March 8, 2009 - March 14, 2009
The highly respected Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies has started a new company blog. In a busy first week:
- Glen Bolger reviews the Pew Economic Mobility study they conducted with Democratic firm Greenberg Qiuinlan Rosner,
- Jim Burton adds thoughts on the CDC report on cell-phone-only rates by state.
Ruy Teixeira, the scholar who once authored the Emerging Democratic Majority/Donkey Rising blog, has started at new Progressive Studies Program with John Halpin at the Center for American Progress, with new releases this week:
- In New Progressive America, Teixeira mines a trove of demographic, geographic and attitudinal trends to argue that a new demography, a new geography and a new agenda are tilting the country progressive.
- In State of American Ideology, 2009, Halpin reviews their new national survey about political ideology, including a five point ideological scale that offers respondents of self-identifying as progressive or libertarian as well as "liberal, conservative and moderate.
- They also offer an interactive quiz to rate how progressive you are and an interactive map that includes 7 levels of exit poll demograhics and county level vote shifts going back to 1988.
And now on with our usual review of other polling, survey and number-crunching related items overlooked this week...
Marc Ambinder chews over the Pew/POS/GQR Economic Mobility study.
Chris Bowers summarizes Teixeira's New Progressive America report.
The ABC News/BBC/NHK poll in Iraq shows broad public support for shoe-thrower Muntadhar al-Zeidi.
Jennifer Agiesta notes higher ratings of Congress by Democrats.
Greg Sargent finds low ratings of Republican leaders by Republican voters.
Gerald Seib sees risks lurking in Obama's poll ratings.
Chris Cillizza ponders polling on Rush Limbaugh.
Phil Klinker pulls Rush Limbaugh's 2008 favorable rating from the 2008 ANES data.
John Sides dives into newly released ANES data to consider how racial prejudice affected the 2008 election.
Tom Jensen warns against reading too much into NY-20.
Mark Mellman objects to comparisons of Obama and Stalin.
David Hill predicts liberals will revive the debate on illegal immigration.
David Winston assesses Obama's chess game.
Andrew Sullivan rounds up commentary on Gallup's well-being index data.
STATS blogger Trevor Butterworth reports on a Kaiser Family Foundation survey of reporters covering health care.
The Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (conducted by our sponsor) finds hurdles to voting persisted in 2008.
Public Opinion Quarterly publishes a new free online issue on web survey methods (via AAPOR via Twitter).
Henry Farrell, John Sides, Andrew Gellman (twice) react to Matt Bai's caricature (reg. required) of political scientists.
Carl Bialik celebrates Pi Day.
Jason Linkins catches a goof on a CNN online reader poll (via Ana Marie Cox).
Jim Bunning apologizes for taking the Lord's name in vain.
Update: One I forgot. Flowing Data presents 27 data visualizations and infographics that explain the financial crisis (via Alex Lundry).
Continue reading "Jumbo Sized "Outliers" (A Little Late)"
If you haven't yet read Charles Franklin's comments on yesterday's Wall Street Journal op-ed by pollsters Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen, click now and go read it. Then come back, because I have some thoughts to add, particularly on his observations on one sided interpretations and the power of partisan predispositions among polling analysts.
For those who can't wait, Charles' post addresses two big arguments from the Schoen/Rasmussen piece: First, that Obama's approval is now "below where George W. Bush was in an analogous period in 2001." Second, the headline (and sidebar graphic) arguing that "Obama's Poll Numbers are Falling to Earth" (which upgraded further to "Obama Cratering" when blogged by The Corner's Andy McCarthy). Although Obama's numbers approval numbers have declined, as Charles argues, both arguments rest on distortions or "one sided interpretations" of data.
The biggest concern for Democrats should be the inevitable downward pressure from economic worries on Obama's job rating over the next two years. As Charles reminds us:
Any responsible economic analysis expects a significant lag before the stimulus has an effect, and assumes business conditions will improve after that for fundamental reasons as well. But not before the last quarter of 2009, at best. Ask Ronald Reagan how that worked out for him, as his approval sunk [from 59% in March 1981 just before the assassination attempt] to 43% around midterm election day 1982.
However, a few other aspects of the op-ed are worth a review.
"The American people are coming to express increasingly significant doubts about [Obama's] initiatives, and most likely support a different agenda and different policies from those that the Obama administration has advanced."
This line represents the central argument of the Schoen/Rasmussen op-ed. The two authors proceed through a litany of poll findings that illustrate public doubt about various Obama initiatives. Although many of these results should trouble Democrats, as Charles notes, the list is also relentlessly one-sided. Not surprisingly, Obama's pollster produced a similarly one-sided rebuttal of findings (blogged yesterday afternoon by George Stephanopoulos) showing support or enthusiasm for various Obama initiatives. The truth of public opinion about the specifics of Obama's agenda -- or perhaps more accurately about where public opinion is headed -- probably lies somewhere in between.
But one set of findings that Schoen and Rasmussen distort or leave out entirely involves questions that ask Americans directly about Obama's goals, policies and priorities:
NBC/Wall Street Journal (2/26-3/1, n=1,007 adults) - How confident are you that Barack Obama has the right set of goals and policies to be president of the United States: extremely confident, quite confident, only somewhat confident, or not at all confident?"
31% extremely, 23% quite, 26% only somewhat confident, 19% not confident at all
CNN/ORC (2/18-19, n=1,046 adults) - Do you think the policies being proposed by Barack Obama will move the country in the right direction or the wrong direction?
67% right direction, 31% wrong direction
CBS News/New York Times Poll. (2/18-22, n=1,112 adults) - Do you think Barack Obama has the same priorities for the country as you have, or doesn't he?
65% does, 28% does not, 7% unsure
I say "distort" because they do reference the NBC/Wall Street Journal question about halfway through their piece:
"[A]lthough a narrow majority remains confident in Mr. Obama's goals and overall direction, 45% say they do not have confidence, a number that has been growing since the inauguration less than two months ago."
The "narrow majority" is the 54% that say they are "extremely" or "quite" confident on the NBC/Wall Street Journal question. Fair enough. But 45% "do not have confidence?" Only if you interpret the 26% that are "only somewhat confident" to mean not confident. And the claim that the 45% number has been "growing since the inauguration?" Really? The NBC/WSJ poll asked this question only once before in early December and the results were virtually identical: 30% extremely, 24% quite, 29% only somewhat confident, 16% not confident at all. So 45% in December "grew" to 45% in late February.
"Mr. Obama has lost virtually all of his Republican support and a good part of his Independent support, and the trend is decidedly negative."
I do not have access to Rasmussen's subscriber-only crosstabulations. I emailed Scott Rasmussen yesterday to request them, but have not yet heard back. If any readers are Rasmussen subscribers and want to post the most recent approval results by party, I will append them here [Update (3/15): Rasmussen's latest ratings by party are posted below].
However, we do have charts on Pollster.com for Obama job approval by party based on data from the seven national media pollsters that report results by party. These show that virtually all of the decline in Obama's approval rating has occurred among Republicans and independents, while Obama's numbers have improved slightly among Democrats.
Obama's current job ratings among Republicans on our trend estimate is 30.3% approve, 55.7% disapprove. Those numbers are certainly "polarized" in comparison to Obama's standing among Democrats, but approval from 3 in 10 Republicans is still long way from losing "virtually all" of his support.
Among independents, Obama's current rating is 55.5% approve, 27.4% disapprove on our trend estimate. Although Obama's disapproval scores among independents have more than doubled, his approval percentage has dropped by a more modest 6-7 percentage points since the swearing in. Yes, the trend is negative, but the decline to date is a far cry from a "good part" of Obama's support among independents.
[Update (3/15): Scott Rasmussen sends the following results by party, which come from the results released today based on 1,500 interviews conducted from Thursday through Sunday, March 12-14. Not surprisingly, Obama's approval percentages among Republicans (23%) and in the "other" category (48%) are lower than those from other pollsters].
Rasmussen: Obama Job Approval by Party
"While Congress's approval has increased, it still stands at only 18%."
That finding is from Rasmussen's congressional job approval question which differs from their presidential approval rating and produces lower scores than the question asked by other pollsters. The answer categories Rasmussen offers for the question about "the way Congress is doing its job" are excellent, good, fair and poor. This four point question format does typically produce lower approval scores when we combine excellent and good and compare to the percentage that "approve" on the classic two-category question.
Other pollsters that ask the traditional "approve-disapprove" question show higher recent approval scores for Congress (39% from Gallup, 41% from Fox News, 31% for NBC/Wall Street Journal, 26% from CBS/New York Times). Our current trend estimate based on all of these pollsters puts the Congressional rating at 35.4% approve, 55.1% disapprove.
Thanks to the reader that emailed with this observation and wondered whether the Rasmussen finding skews our congressional approval trend estimate. In this case, the impact is relatively small. Use the "filter tool" on our chart to remove the Rasmussen polls, and resulting estimates change by slightly less than a percentage point -- one point higher for approval (to 36.1%) and one point lower for disapproval (54.9%).
An aside: Rasmussen's presidential approval rating and its impact on our trend estimates are another story. Rather than the excellent/ good/fair/poor format, they ask respondents to choose from four categories of "approve" (strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove and strongly disapprove). Most other national pollsters offer just two categories (approve and disapprove). Also, on Obama's approval rating, Rasmussen has averaged just 2% in the "don't know" category, other pollsters have averaged 13%.
Those two differences -- along with the fact that Rasmussen screens for "likely voters" and perhaps other, harder to detect differences stemming from their use of an automated methodology -- yield lower Obama approval scores than other pollsters. Obama's average approval percentage has been roughly 3 points lower on Rasmussen than on other polls, and his disapproval score has been roughly 14 points higher. You can easily see the difference in the disapproval scores in our chart below. There are two bands of red disapproval dots -- click on any of the higher numbers and you will see that virtually all are Rasmussen polls.
If we filter out the Rasmussen surveys on our chart, the impact on the current trend estimate is small for approval (roughly two points higher) but much more significant for disapproval (roughly seven points higher). The reason is both the size of the gap and the fact that the more frequent daily job approval tracking contributes 16 of 58 data points to our chart since the inauguration. Franklin and I have been discussing this issue recently and plan to blog more analysis on it soon.
* * *
Back to Franklin's observation about the "the power of predispositions" in polling analysis. I worked for more than 20 years as partisan pollster, but even as an "independent" blogger I still find it challenging to put blinders on and focus exclusively on the data. It is not easy, and I make no claim to perfection. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, partisan predispositions seep through.
There is also a place for partisan advocacy. A one-sided, cherry-picked analysis by a Republican partisan appearing on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page is no more a surprise than a similarly one sided rebuttal issued by Barack Obama's pollster. What is surprising is to see that sort of advocacy coming from from two pollsters that explicitly identify themselves as "independent" and unaffiliated. Schoen and Rasmussen should know better.
Obama approval is at 59.7 based on my trend estimator, the blue line above. A lot or a little? High or low for other presidents? According to a Wall Street Journal Online article today by Douglas Schoen and Scott Rasmussen, "Obama's Poll Numbers are Falling to Earth"
. But Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com counters "Yes, Obama's Approval Ratings are Declining. What did you Expect?"
The Schoen and Rasmussen piece notes a number of polling results that point to potential trouble for the new administration. Silver argues that the pace of the first 50 days is more like a full year for most presidents, so we should not think the current decline is that much and should compare other presidents at 365 days to this one at 50. Ahhhhh... the power of predispositions.
Schoen and Rasmussen point to a number of results that should concern Democrats, were they in a mood to care about public reaction to the new president and congress and the implications those have for the next three years and 315 days. But their piece is entirely about driving a negative thesis, and picking evidence to suit. The Journal editors help that cause along with this graphic, presumably what we are supposed to think of when we read a headline like "Obama's Poll Numbers are Falling to Earth":
But that red line is just a tad off. If the scale were close to the relative change we see in approval in the chart of the actual data above (remember that blue line?) it would look more like this:
Just about as distorted as the one-sided interpretations of the data we see.
Democrats are just as inclined to find ways to deny the decline matters. One approach is to ignore results they don't like, such as Rasmussen's low daily tracker compared to Gallup' daily or other conventional polls. Silver takes that tack, but good for him for at least showing the Rasmussen data in the charts. The problem from my point of view is that if Obama is "about average" for 50 days, then why are Dems so anxious to come up with reasons why that should not worry them? Silver is right that we should expect some decline as partisan lines become more well defined. But we should really be expecting significant decline as the economy fails to turn on a dime in the next few months. Any responsible economic analysis expects a significant lag before the stimulus has an effect, and assumes business conditions will improve after that for fundamental reasons as well. But not before the last quarter of 2009, at best. Ask Ronald Reagan how that worked out for him, as his approval sunk to 43% around midterm election day 1982. Dems need to plan for the long term, which is likely to be pretty disappointing over the next 24 months. They have to hope for a late rebound like the one that powered Reagan to his "morning in America" landslide, just 2 years after the economic and approval bottom.
Finally, is Obama now at or below President George W. Bush numbers at day 50? Depends on how much you want to cherry pick the polls. Here is what the real evidence is, with Clinton for good measure:
Yep. There are five polls at about this time where Bush was equal to or ahead of Obama, and the one closest to today is just about dead equal. Problem is there are a bunch more polls lower, so that the trend estimate for Bush is 56.5 on day 50, versus Obama's 59.7 on that day. President Clinton was at 56.
Bush and Clinton ran parallel through about day 60, then Clinton went into a true tailspin, bottoming below 40 by day 130. Bush held steady at the mid-50s through August 31.
These are modest poll differences that mean very little for the long run success or failure of an administration. The Obama folks would do well to keep their eye on the policy ball, and work hard to survive losses in 2010 and adopt policies with long term payoffs in 2011 and 2012. Republicans should take their shots when they can, but not count on a small decline in approval now, and cherry picked results, to make Obama seem in much worse shape than he is. The GOP needs more thoughtful analysis than that to Rebuild the Party. Both should look to their supporting coalitions for clues as to what they can do now to garner support when the next round of elections come.
2/28 - 3/5/09; 505 likely voters, 4.4% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
New York State
Gov. Paterson Job Approval
29% Excellent/Good, 66% Only Fair/Poor (chart)
Favorable / Unfavorable
Gov. Paterson: 41 / 46 (chart)
Sen. Schumer: 64 / 23 (chart)
Sen. Gillibrand: 24 / 11 (chart)
Giuliani: 61 / 34
Cuomo: 70 / 13
'10 General Election - Governor
Giuliani (R) 50, Gov. Paterson (D) 36 (chart)
Cuomo (D) 51. Giuliani 36 (chart)
In early February, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) censured Dr. Gilbert Burnham, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for violating the AAPOR ethical code for failing to disclose "essential facts about his research," a study (pdf) of civilian deaths in Iraq originally published in the journal Lancet.
When I blogged the story, one reader asked for more specifics about what exactly Burnham had failed to disclose. The response from AAPOR's standards chair, Mary Losch was a somewhat vague summary: "Included in our request were full sampling information, full protocols regarding household selection, and full case dispositions -- Dr. Burnham explicitly refused to provide that information for review."
On Tuesday, AAPOR's executive committee issued a statement (pdf) with more specifics on what they requested and how Burnham responded:
As part of the investigation, the AAPOR Standards Chair requested information from Dr. Burnham. The specific requests related to AAPOR’s finding of violation of minimum disclosure were as follows:
1. The survey sponsor(s) and sources of funding for the survey.
2. A copy of the original questionnaire or survey script used in the 2006 survey, in all languages into which it was translated.
3. The consent statement or explanation of the survey purpose.
4. A full description of the sample selection process, including any written instructions or materials from interviewer training about sample selection procedures.
5. A summary of the disposition of all sample cases.
6. How were streets selected? How were the starting street, and the starting household, selected? Once the starting point was selected, how were interviewers instructed to proceed (e.g., when they came to an intersection)? How were houses and respondents chosen at housing units?
7. The survey description says that, “The interview team were given the responsibility and authority to change to an alternate location if they perceived the level of insecurity or risk to be unacceptable.” In how many clusters did the team change location, and what were the reasons for the changes?
8. The survey description says that, “Empty houses or those that refused to participate were passed over until 40 households had been interviewed in all locations.” Were such cases included in the number of not-at-home and refusal cases counted in each cluster?
Dr. Burnham responded with the following information related to the detailed request:
• “This study was carried out using standard demographic and household survey methods.”
• “The methods we employed for this study were set out in the Lancet paper reporting our findings (Lancet, 2006;368:1421-28). The dataset from the study was released some time ago.”
Despite repeated requests from the AAPOR Standards Chair for the information detailed above, Dr. Burnham refused to provide any additional information. He did not indicate that the information was unavailable, nor did he suggest that disclosure of this information would risk revealing the identities of survey participants.
Keep in mind that AAPOR asked Burnham to disclose these details to their standards committee as a part of a confidential inquiry. They were not asking him to make these details public, at least not at that stage of their investigation. They have not provided information on the nature of the original complaint made by an AAPOR member, which may have involved aspects of the research other than disclosure. Either way, the AAPOR code is very clear about a researchers obligation to disclose such details, on request. Failure to disclose is grounds for censure.
Mary Losch will present an overview of AAPOR's code and the Burnham case and will be available for questions today at 3:00 p.m. at an event sponsored by AAPOR's DC Chapter (more details at DC-aapor.org).
Interests disclosed: I am an AAPOR member and served on AAPOR's Executive Council for two years, from May 2006 to May 2008, but was not involved in the Standards Committee's investigation of the Lancet study.
Economic Mobility Project / Pew Charitable Trusts
Public Opinion Strategies (R) / Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (D)
1/27 - 2/8/09; 1,000 adults (weighted), 3% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
"Nearly eight in ten (79 percent) believe it is still possible for people to get ahead in the current economy. This remains true even among lower-income, less-educated and unemployed Americans. Such consensus is striking given that a near-unanimous 94 percent of Americans describe the current economic condition of the country negatively."
"Americans remain optimistic about the future--a 72 percent majority believes their economic circumstances will be better in the next ten years. This optimism crosses party lines and demographic groups. African Americans are the most optimistic (85 percent) compared to whites and Hispanics (71 percent and 77 percent, respectively)."
"Most Americans report considerable improvement in their standard of living. A 58 percent majority say they enjoy a higher standard of living than did their parents at a similar age, and 56 percent said it was easier for them to move up the income ladder than it was for their parents."
State of Economy
6% Excellent/Good, 21% Only Fair, 73% Poor (chart)
Ipsos / McClatchy
3/5-9/09; 1,070 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
Direction of Country
44% Right Direction, 48% Wrong Track (chart)
Obama Job Approval
65% Approve, 29% Disapprove (chart)
3/4-9/09; 1,386 registered voters, 2.6% margin of error
436 registered Republicans, 4.7% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
Pres. Obama: 61 / 28 (chart)
Gov. Corzine: 40 / 50 (chart)
Sen. Lautenberg: 47 / 37 (chart)
Sen. Menendez: 41 / 33 (chart)
'09 Republican Primary - Governor
Christie 40, Lonegan 19, Levine 3, Merkt 1 (chart)
'09 General Election - Governor
Christie (R) 46, Gov. Corzine (D) 37 (chart)
Gov. Corzine 41, Lonegan (R) 37 (chart)
(first release, second release)
I hope the folks at the Pew Research Center don't mind if we borrow their graphic, but it demonstrates clever use of an easily coded open-ended question** ("What ONE WORD best describes your impression of Barack Obama?") combined with the elegance of a word cloud graphic. The top cloud is based on a survey conducted in early February 2009, the bottom on a survey conducted during September 2008. You can read more about the results of these questions here (summary of the survey here), but in this case, the picture conveys the most powerful finding all by itself.
**For those unfamiliar with the term, "open-ended" means the interviewer asks the respondent to answer in their own words (or in this case, with a single word). On a "closed-ended" question, the respondent would choose from a list of answer categories.
Siena Research Institute
3/9-10/09; 712 likely voters, 3.7 margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
New York CD-20
'09 Special General Election
Tedisco (R) 45, Murphy (D) 41, Sundwall (L) 1 (chart)
In his press briefing yesterday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had the following exchange following a question by ABC Radio's Ann Compton (emphasis added):
Q On this his 50th day in office, does the President feel he's about where he expected to be on his policy initiatives? From the tone of voice this morning it sounded like the criticism that he's tried to do too much has really kind of gotten under his skin.
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- well, first of all, I will check when I go back to the graph at presidential happiness at the intersection of the 50th day and chart its appropriate progress. (Laughter.)
Q Will you release that, please? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: We're not that transparent, Mark. (Laughter.)
Q And is the trend up or down? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: It depends. I think I can speak authoritatively to that.
And if that were not hitting close enough to home, Gibbs today had this reference to the Gallup Poll (as reported by MediaBistro's FishbowlDC):
NBC's Chuck Todd, once of Hotline fame, attempted some West Wing polling today when he asked whether the president approved or disapproved of Congress. "I don't know if he was called in the Gallup poll," Gibbs said, referencing this morning's release of numbers showing Capitol Hill slightly less loathed than a few months ago, and the least loathed since its February 2005 numbers.
Oklahoma and DC have the highest percentage of adults living in "cell phone only" households in the nation (25.1% and 25.4% respectively) according to a new report just issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The report, issued by CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) provides estimates of the wireless-only percentage of households and adults for all 50 states and the District of Columbia (which reports a wireless-only percentage even higher than Oklahoma). The states with the lowest number of cell-phone only adults are Delaware (4.0%), Vermont (4.6%) and Connecticut (4.8%).
Why does the CDC care about cell phone usage? As regular readers know (and as the report explains), CDC conducts a variety of critical health surveillance surveys via telephone, including the including the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the National Immunization Survey, and the State and Local Area Integrated Telephone Survey. They need to monitor the growth of the cell-phone-only population in order to check for potential bias in their telephone surveys and guide any transition to cell phone interviewing.
Five years ago, survey methodologists at CDC started asking questions about telephone usage on the on-going National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Since NHIS is an in-person survey with a massive sample (interviewing roughly 13,000 Americans every six months), it can provide very precise, national estimates of the cell-phone-only population. The semi-annual estimates of the cell-phone only population from NCHS have become the most anticipated numbers in survey research. Their estimates are critically important to any survey -- including most national media polls last fall -- that interviewed respondents over their cell phones in order to reach the cell-phone only population. Pollsters use the NCHS estimates to determine how to weight their combined landline, cell phone samples.
Until now, however, NCHS has not produced state level estimates of the cell phone only population because "the sample size of NHIS is insufficient for direct reliable annual estimates for most states."
How did they get around that limit? They first used the NHIS data to create statistical models (using logistic regression) that estimate the cell-phone-only percentages using demographic variables (including gender, age, race, education, household size, home ownership, employment and poverty status). They then applied their models to a much larger set of survey data collected as part of the Current Population Study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to create "modeled estimates" of the cell phone only population in each state (the first table in their report). The report also includes the "direct state-level estimates" (the results of the NHIS survey interviews in each state).
Like the national NCHS estimates, these new state level statistics will be closely watched -- and used -- by pollsters and survey researchers of all varieties.
PS: See also the reports today by AP's Mike Mokrzycki, The Washington Post's Jon Cohen
Jennifer Agiesta and the Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik. Our colleague Brian Schaffner pondered the issue of cell phone only households by state last September. We have written a lot on the subject of cell-phone-only households and surveys, including a NationalJournal.com column in October.
Update: Pollster reader Joran sends in two charts he quickly created that plot the state-level NCHS estimates of the wireless only percentages of households and adults, complete with error bars (see the report for details on these not-quite-confidence intervals).
Democracy Corps (D)
3/4-8/09; 1,000 2008 Voters, 830 Likely 2010 voters
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
Direction of Country
32% Right Direction, 56% Wrong Track (chart)
Favorable / Unfavorable
Barack Obama (chart)
2008 Voters: 59 / 27
Likely 2010 Voters: 58 / 29
2008 Voters: 26 / 53
Likely 2010 Voters: 27 / 55
DCCC / Benenson Strategy Group (D)
2/24-25/09; 400 likely voters, 5% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
New York CD-20
'09 Special General Election
Tedisco (R) 44, Murphy (D) 37, Sundwall (L) 4 (chart)
In case you haven't see it yet (via Jim Carroll of the Courier Journal, via TPM & Atlantic Politics) , Kentucky's Republican Senator Jim Bunning had a classic response when asked about an internal poll apparently co=== he had conducted an internal poll on his 2010 reelection bid:
"Let's say I did the polling," the senator told reporters on a conference call this morning.
What does that mean?
"That means it's none of your g--d--- business," Bunning said, who then followed up with a laugh. "If you paid the 20 grand for the poll, you can get some information out of it."
In fairness, Bunning is under no obligation, ethical or otherwise, to disclose the results of an internal poll. Results from internal campaign polling are typically not disclosed, although it is probably likely that Bunning would share good news if it helped bolster perceptions of his current standing. Bunning was ready with an answer:
Asked if people could infer he was not happy with the results, Bunning replied: "You are going to infer any damn thing you choose, so why should I try to influence it?...I'm not going to say a word. So you can only speculate."
One theme I try to highlight here, as news allows, is the constructive role that polling and opinion research play within political campaigns and governing. We certainly hear the contrary view, best summed up by Joe Klein in Politics Lost, of the "pollster-consultant industrial complex" that has "drained a good deal of the life of democracy," rendering it reactionary "to the results of their polling and focus groups."
While Klein's argument has a good deal of merit, I hope we don't lose sight of the positive contribution of polling and focus groups. For better or worse, these tools help bring the voice of ordinary people into in the often insular world of politics and governing in Washington.
We can see that role on display in yesterday's profile of Obama senior advisor David Axelrod by Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. The piece describes a regular Wednesday night meeting that Axelrod holds with handful of advisers, "nearly all of whom played a key role in paving Mr. Obama’s path to the Oval Office," as well as similar meetings involving the speechwriting and communications staff at the White House. The last two paragraphs are telling:
Jon Favreau, the president’s chief speechwriter, said there was a familiar refrain during these meetings, with Mr. Axelrod urging the team not to become consumed by the insularity of Washington. “Can I speak on behalf of the American people here?” he said Mr. Axelrod often asks aloud.
That is precisely why, Mr. Axelrod said, he convened the Wednesday Night Meetings: to keep the pulse of what people were thinking. Locked in the White House all day, he added, he can no longer hear those voices on his own.
Not surprisingly, a pollster plays a prominent role in the Wednesday Night Meetings:
[T]he Wednesday night meetings suggest that the strong belief in polling and focus groups from the campaign are alive in the White House. Joel Benenson, a pollster for Mr. Obama, is among the participants in the sessions. He said that Mr. Axelrod often asked one question above all: “How do we make sure that the arguments from the president’s agenda are made in the most persuasive way?”
While many will be troubled by the continuing influence of pollsters and campaign advisors in the Obama administration, we should remember that many of these decision makers turn to polls and survey research in order to hear from those whose perspective is often lost inside the Beltway.
3/8-9/09; 1,000 likely voters, 3.5% margin of error
Mode: IVR *
President Obama has decided to lift the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Do you agree or disagree with President Obama's decision?
Do you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life?
45% Pro-life *
Public Policy Polling (D)
3/5-8/09; 782 registered voters, 3.5% margin of error
Mode: IVR *
'10 Senate General Election
Castle (R) 44%, Biden (D) 36%
3/3-8/09; 1,238 registered voters, 2.8% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
Job Approval / Disapproval
Pres. Obama: 67 / 23 (chart)
Gov. Rell: 75 / 19 (chart)
Sen. Lieberman: 46 / 46 (chart)
Sen. Dodd: 49 / 44 (chart)
Favorable / Unfavorable
Sen. Dodd: 46 / 45 (chart)
'10 Senate General Election (chart)
Simmons (R) 43%, Dodd (D) 42%
Dodd 47%, Caligiuri (R) 34%
Dodd 46%, Kudlow (R) 34%
Last week, Nate Silver flagged an intriguing question in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:
When you think about the current economic conditions, do you feel that this is a situation that Barack Obama has inherited or is this a situation his policies are mostly responsible for? (ASK ONLY OF RESPONDENTS WHO SAY INHERITED) And how much time would you say that Barack Obama has before his policies are mostly responsible for the country's economic conditions?
The question gets at an issue that has been on a lot of minds lately: Just how patient will Americans be with President Obama? Or, as Republican pollster Bill McInturff puts it, "when does gravity begin?" (McInturff conducts the NBC/WSJ poll along with Democrat Peter Hart). The same survey, like most reported in recent weeks, shows a huge gap between Obama's approval rating and attitudes about the economy. Specifically, a large majority (60%) approves of Obama's performance while virtually all (92%) are dissatisfied with the condition of the economy (70% say they are very dissatisfied).
As of right now, the NBC/WSJ survey tells us, Americans express patience. Only 8% hold Obama responsible for the downturn (as per the question above), and 85% say they expect the economic recession to continue for at least a year (49% say it will not be over for at least two years). As Nate Silver points out, the majority of voters say they will hold Obama accountable for the economy at about the same time they expect the recession to have ended.
But I want to emphasize the warning Bill McInturff hinted at in the MSBNC story: While Americans seem to be giving Obama a "long leash" on the economy, they are "notoriously impatient people."
There is also a technical issue: We should be wary of hypothetical, self-reported predictions of future patience from survey respondents. Surveys are good at taking "snapshots" of current attitudes, but they often fall short when asking voters to predict their future opinions.
Consider three examples:
In June 2007, CBS director of surveys Kathy Frankovic wrote a column reminding us of the pitfalls of the most famous hypothetical question: for whom would you vote "if the election were held today?" As she wrote those words, the leaders in the national surveys were Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton. And in Iowa, Giuliani and John Edwards led among polls of likely caucus goers. Mike Huckabee, the ultimate winner of the Republican caucuses, was still mired in single digits even in Iowa. The point is not that these polls were "wrong," only that they were snapshots. They told us something about how voters felt at the time but fell short as predictions of future support.
Via email, Frankovic highlighted a better example. In 1998, just before and after the House of Representatives voted articles of impeachment against President Clinton, CBS News and the New York Times tracked responses this question (among others):
Given what you know right now, do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton resigned from office, or do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton finished his term as president?
In the week just prior to the House vote (December 13-15, 1998), 30% of Americans said they thought Clinton should resign, while just 67% said he should finish his term. The survey included another, more hypothetical question (emphasis added):
If the full House votes to send impeachment articles to the Senate for a trial, then do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton resigned from office, or not?
Under that hypothetical scenario, 43% said they thought Clinton should resign.
How well did respondents predict their future attitudes just days before the hypothetical became real? Not very. On December 19, the House voted to impeach Clinton and hold a trial in the Senate. The CBS/Times pollsters went back into the field to conduct a second interview among those previously polled the week before. Just after the House vote, the percentage favoring Clinton's resignation held steady at 31% (and the panel-back design allowed the pollsters to confirm that roughly a third of those that had hypothetically supported Clinton's resignation in the event of an impeachment took the opposite position when the theoretical became real). Support for resignation remained essentially unchanged as they drew fresh new national samples and tracked again on January 3-4, 1999 (28% favored resignation) and January 10-11 (29%).
A third example comes via email from McInturff (who had no idea I was planning to write about the Clinton impeachment): "In 1998, we spent months and months asking people how would they feel if they learned the Monica story WAS true. That was interesting to track, but it had little bearing on what happened in August when they did, in fact, learn it was true.."
The point, again: Polls are best at providing snapshots of current attitudes
, especially under hypothetical conditions. Results can mislead us when pollsters ask respondents to predict future attitudes and when we take their answers too literally.
I had a hunch that McInturff shared my skepticism, and he confirmed that intuition via email:
This is not a question we can ask the electorate confident they really know the answer. It would be interesting to track attitudinally, but not determinative. Voters do not "know" and will not accurately predict when, in aggregate, this economy becomes "his" in the public's mind, but all previous research suggests at some time it will.
McInturff suggests that the so-called "right direction wrong track" question" provides a better way to watch Obama's potential to sustain his current approval ratings. The latest NBC/WSJ poll showed showed a twenty-nine point increase since the election (from 12% to 41%) in the percentage of Americans saying the nation is "generally headed in the right direction" rather than "off on the wrong track" (a trend confirmed by others polls as illustrated by our right direction/wrong track chart). Most of that increase came from Democrats.
In Laura Meckler's Wall Street Journal poll story, McInturff explains the implications:
Typically, he said, presidential approval ratings hover about 20 percentage points above the national "right direction" number. With that figure at 41%, he said, Mr. Obama's approval rating, at 60%, is sustainable and high enough to allow for major victories.
The key question, as McInturff frames it, is whether the "right direction" number will remain at or near 40%, or whether it will recede back to the 25% measured by most surveys in late January. A 25% right direction number would provide "a major barrier" to Obama sustaining his current approval rating. If that number remains at or near 40%, however, Obama could maintain a job approval rating in the high 50 percent range. So, he says, "let's wait and see if [the right direction number] can be sustained at this high level given the very serious economic news."
PS: A related issue, also flagged by Nate Silver, is that voters typically "react slowly to changes in economic well-being." Last week, ABC's Gary Langer blogged the details, including this finding following the deep recession in 1990-1991:
Confidence in current economic conditions, as measured in the ongoing ABC News Consumer Comfort Index, didn't regain its pre-recession level until late 1994, more than three and a half years after that recession technically ended.
USA Today / Gallup Poll
2/20-22/09; 1,013 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
As you may know, the federal government currently provides very limited funding for medical research that uses stem cells obtained from human embryos. Which would you prefer the government do -- [ROTATED: place no restrictions on government funding of stem cell research, ease the current restrictions to allow more stem cell research, keep the current restrictions in place, (or should the government) not fund stem cell research at all]?
14% No restrictions
38% Ease current restrictions
22% Keep current restrictions
19% Not fund at all