Public Opinion Strategies (R) for the National Republican Senatorial Committee
7/19-20/10; 600 likely voters, 4% margin of error
Mode: Live telephone interviews
All likely voters: 48% Vitter (R), 31% Melancon (D) (chart)
Among "most likely voters" (77% of sample): 53% Vitter (R), 33% Melancon
[Editors note: The original version of this post inadvertently confused the "likely voter" and "most likely voter" results. Our policy for the charts, as explained in our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, is to use the larger likely voter sample when pollsters also release results for a smaller "most likely" or "definite" subgroup].
On Monday, Gallup released the latest update in its weekly tracking of “generic” ballot preferences for the 2010 Congressional elections. The generic ballot asks voters if they would vote for “the Democratic Party’s candidate or the Republican Party’s candidate” in their congressional district, if the election were held today.
According to the analysis by Gallup’s Lydia Saad, this week’s showed “the first statistically significant lead” for the Democrats (49% to 43%), since Gallup began weekly tracking in March, so naturally the headline read: “Democrats Jump Into Six-Point Lead.”
Analysts and pundits wasted no time offering possible explanations for the “jump.” Saad’s lead sentence juxtaposed the news of the Democrats pulling ahead with passage of “a major financial reform bill touted as reining in Wall Street.” Elsewhere, Kevin Drum, Tom Schaller and Andrew Sullivan offered alternative theories, although all also cautioned that the pattern could be an “outlier” or “blip.”
Let me play the cautious pollster for a moment and make the case for “blip.”
Yes, this week’s reported six-point lead for the Democrats is statistically significant, but the bigger issue is whether it is significantly different from Gallup’s reading in previous weeks. Remember, all polls have random variation built in that we usually think about as the “margin of error.” Random up-and-down variation within that range is to be expected.
The chart below plots the percentage of respondents each week who tell Gallup they are voting for a Democrat (the blue dots) plus a vertical (blue) line for each poll that indicates the range associated with the reported +/- 3 margin of sampling error.
I have also added a black line showing the average Democratic vote (45.6%) over the full 20 weeks of Gallup tracking. The total lack of a trend is hypothetical, since we do not know for certain that the “true” support for Democrats has been an absolutely flat line since March. I’m plotting that line, however, in order to ask a question: Has this week’s poll, or any poll in the series for that matter, produced a result inconsistent with the average? In other words, does any result fall outside the range of 45.6%, plus or minus 3%? The answer is, just one — this week’s — and just barely. This week’s result (49% Democrat) minus three (46%) is just four tenths of a percentage point greater than the average (45.6%). Keep in mind that each week’s result, and the reported margin of error, have both been rounded to the nearest whole digit, so it’s possible that if we had all data calculated to one decimal, we might reach a different conclusion.
And keep something else in mind about the margin of error: It represents a probability. We can expect results to fall beyond the margin of error 5% of the time, or for one measurement out of twenty (that’s the idea behind the line in Gallup’s methodological blurb: “one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points”).
Guess what? Gallup has released exactly 20 results so far in its weekly tracking series and exactly one — this week — has fallen outside the average of all the polls combined (and then by just 0.4%).
Now let’s look at the same chart for the percentage voting Republican as compared to a flat line average of 45.9% Republican across all twenty weeks of Gallup’s tracking. In this case, this week’s result (43%) plus three (46%) captures the average for all 20 weeks (45.9%) by just one tenth of one percent. However, two polls conducted six and eight weeks ago fall (each showing Republican preference at 49%) fall just outside the range.
Thus, the case for true “jump” in Democratic performance on the generic House ballot is weak. If we add the context of other recent polls, it gets weaker still. Their results scatter around a dead-heat margin in ways that are more or less consistent with their typical house effects on the generic ballot.
As always, more data next week will likely settle the issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the next move in Gallup’s weekly tracking in the Republican direction, not because of real-world events but rather due to what statisticians call a reversion to the mean.
CNN / Opinion Research Corporation
7/16-21/10; 1,018 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live telephone interviews
If you had to choose, would you say that the situation in the Gulf of Mexico is under control or is still out of control?
33% Under control, 65% Out of control
And thinking about how things are going in the Gulf of Mexico, would you say that the situation is getting better, that it has stabilized but is not getting better, or that it is getting worse?
24% Getting Better, 58% Stabilized, 18% Getting worse
If you have been following coverage of polling on jobs and the deficit this week, you may be a little confused. “The public now sees reducing the budget deficit as a higher priority than increasing government spending to help the economy recover,” the Pew Research Center told us on Monday. But just today, the headline of the Quinnipiac University poll announces that “American Voters Want Jobs Over Deficit Reduction 2-1.” What gives?
I gathered results from media polls conducted in July that have asked respondents to choose in some way between creating jobs or cutting the deficit and created the following table:
Pew Research/National Journal (7/15-18, n=1,003 adults): If you were setting priorities for the government these days, would you place a higher priority on [rotate] Reducing the budget deficit OR Spending more to help the economy recover?
40% spend to help economy
51% reducing deficit
9% don't know
CBS News (7/9-12, 2010. N=966 adults): Which comes closer to your own view? The federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit OR the federal government should NOT spend money to create jobs and should instead focus on reducing the budget deficit.
46% spend to create jobs
47% reducing deficit
Zogby Interactive (7/9-11, n=2,055 likely voters/online opt-in panel): Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Right now, federal spending targeted to create and maintain employment is a more important concern than the federal deficit.
53% agree (spend on jobs)
5% don't know
Quinnipiac University (7/13-19, n=2,181 registered voters): What do you think is more important - reducing the federal budget deficit or reducing unemployment?
64% unemploy- ment
6% don't know
Bloomberg/Selzer & Co (7/9-12, 2010, n=1,004 adults): The U.S. currently has a huge budget deficit and a high unemployment rate. Which should take priority: reducing the budget deficit or reducing the unemployment rate?
70% unemploy- ment
Let’s start with the last two questions in the table asked by the Quinnipiac University and Bloomberg/Selzer polls that show the most lopsided support for a focus on jobs and unemployment. If you look closely, the questions are very different than the others in the table, in that they ask respondents to prioritize between unemployment and the deficit as issues, but they do not introduce the idea of increasing government spending in order to reduce unemployment. The latter choice is closer to the policy argument playing out in Washington, but these Quinnipiac and Bloomberg results are still valuable. While Americans are concerned about the growing deficit, they worry about unemployment much more.
Note that while these numbers differ by party, even Republicans are overwhelmingly convinced that unemployment is a bigger issue than the deficit.
When pollsters introduce the idea of spending government money in order to create jobs or benefit the economy, the results narrow considerably, although not consistently. But notice the difference: The CBS News question produces a nearly even split (46% to 47% on jobs vs. the deficit) when it asks about the government spending money “to create jobs,” while the Pew Research/National Journal polls shows a greater preference for reducing the deficit (40% to 51%) versus spending “to help the economy recover.”
Not surprisingly, these results show the usual partisan polarization. Republicans overwhelmingly prefer deficit reduction, while almost as many Democrats prefer an emphasis on jobs and the economy. Independents, as they often do, divide by roughly the same margins as all adults.
My guess is that the more specific emphasis on “jobs” explains the modest difference between the CBS News and Pew/National Journal results. Other results from the Pew Research poll offer a possible explanation: Large majorities believe that the “federal government’s economic policies” since 2008 have done a “great deal” or a “fair amount” to help “large banks and financial institutions” (74%) and “large corporations” (80%), but only 27% say those policies have done a great deal or fair amount for “middle class people.”
These results tell us that most Americans believe the economic policies their government has pursued have helped some sectors of the economy recover while leaving the middle class and unemployed behind. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that a slightly more react favorably to the notion of spending “to create jobs” rather than spending to “to help the economy recover.”
Still, it is not surprising that these sorts of forced choice questions produce inconsistent results based on minor wording differences. My guess is that most Americans see the unemployment and the deficit as complementary problems, and that only a few see the conflict that many economists do between cutting deficits and stimulating job growth. So it can be confusing for many Americans when pollsters ask them to choose. I’d wager that many want to ask, “why can’t we do both?”
PS: I have focused less on the Zogby Interactive question here for two reasons. First, their online sampling methodology has produced consistently less accurate results in pre-election horse race polling since 2004, even when compared to other opt-in, online panels. Second, this particular question is presented in an agree-disagree format which probably creates what pollsters call “acquiescence bias” favoring the agree-spend-to-create jobs response.
Thanks for Ann Selzer for providing results by party for the Bloomberg survey, and a hat-tip to the Polling Report for its compilation of questions on budget deficits and the economy.
Would you say the ______ party is generally doing a good job or a bad job these days of reaching out to blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities?
Democratic: 70% Good job, 23% Bad job
Republican: 40% Good job, 50% Bad job
Polling critics are fast to point out when polls get it wrong, so let us point out an instance of the polls getting it right. In Tuesday night's Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary, Karen Handel and Nathan Deal placed first and second to advance to a runoff on August 10th. The Pollster.com aggregate did a good job of catching the rise of both these candidates and fall of one time frontrunner John Oxendine, and the individual polls were pretty good too.
In the final seven days before the primary, five polls came out and all five had Handel finishing in first place. Four of the five correctly predicted that Handel and Deal would end up in the runoff. Three of the five forecasted Handel first and Deal second. The final two polls taken accurately projected first through seventh. Most impressively, the final poll (conducted by Insider Advantage) came within three percent of pegging each difference in percentage of the vote between the top four candidates. Why is all of this impressive to me?
First, the only poll (Mason-Dixon) that incorrectly put John Oxendine in the runoff was also the only live interview poll in the field during the final week. Many news organizations still refuse to share results from automated phone (or dismissively referred to as robopolls) because of such fears as five year old (or even a dog) could theoretically be interviewed. All of the "less reliable" automated polls got the final the runoff participants correct, but the supposedly "scientific" poll did not.
Second, southern and gubernatorial primaries have been shown to be the toughest statewide contests to poll. The fact that the race was in fluctuation in the final weeks and the polls were able to pick up on a clear trend toward Handel and Deal and away from Oxendine is especially striking with this past performance in mind.
Third, the pollsters that were furthest off the mark were the ones who have the best historic track record. Mason-Dixon & Rasmussen have been two of the top ten pollsters over the past twelve years, but both of them missed the correct order of the top two finishers. It is important to point however that Oxendine's (and Rasmussen's Deal) percentage was just outside of the margin of error when undecideds are allocated based on those who have registered an opinion.
Fourth, the most accurate poll was conducted by Insider Advantage, which surprised me because of their lack prior lack of transparency and poor performance. Earlier this year, I was involved with a tussle with Insider Advantage. Why? I simply wanted to find out whether their Insider Advantage / Florida Sun-Times poll was live interviewer or automated phone for an article I was working on related to the Florida Republican Senatorial primary. Insider Advantage did not clearly state either way on their website. I repeatedly tried to contact Insider Advantage's CEO Matt Towery for the article, but did not get a response. Florida Sun-Times' political reporter David Hunt, who had written articles based on the poll, believed the poll was "live" interviewer. Only after Mark Blumenthal send an inquiring did I found out that Insider Advantage employs an automated phone technique. In addition, Nate Silver found them to be the second worst pollster with at least ten polls conducted over the past twelve years. Last night, none of these past actions seemed to matter as Insider Advantage nailed the placement of the seven candidates and difference of vote between the top four Republican candidates for governor.
Overall, It was a good, but odd night for polling where up was down and down was up.
Writing in the New York Times, Matt Bai downplays the role of the economy in President Obama's current political struggles, arguing that "[i]t's just as likely... that much of the dissatisfaction with the governing party" is the result of Democrats having "failed to establish a rationale for such expansive measures [as the stimulus bill and health care] during the campaign":
Mr. Obama inherited a perilous economy from his predecessor, and his party has passed a series of consequential laws... yet all indications are that voters in much of the country -- and particularly independent voters -- remain furious with Democratic incumbents.
There are several trendy explanations for this "paradox," as commentators have taken to calling it. Conservatives posit that the problem is ideological -- that laws enacted by Congress have simply been too liberal for the voters. The president's allies, meanwhile, suggest that voters are blaming the party in power for a stubbornly sluggish economy...
It's just as likely, though, that much of the dissatisfaction with the governing party can be traced back to this whole choice-versus-referendum conundrum...
[In 2006] Democrats issued a pamphlet with gauzy notions of "broad prosperity" and health care for all, but almost nothing by way of specific policies or the costs involved. This campaign-by-referendum worked so well that Democrats barely altered the formula in 2008, when Mr. Obama and his party's Congressional candidates ran, successfully, under the vague banner of "change."
The problem with this strategy was that "change" meant wildly different things to different people, and neither of these elections amounted to a mandate for any discernible set of choices. The stimulus bill and the health care law may or may not have been good policy, but the sheer scope and cost of those agenda items seemed to jolt a lot of the independent voters who had conditionally supported Mr. Obama. Having failed to establish a rationale for such expansive measures during the campaign, Democrats were easily caricatured by their adversaries as a bunch of 1970s liberals who would spend money wherever they could.
It's not clear to me why Bai thinks Obama would be more popular if he had been more specific during the campaign. Ronald Reagan was arguably more clear than Obama in 1980 about the agenda he would pursue as president and was very successful in changing the direction of federal budget and tax policy once in office. And yet, given a similarly difficult economic situation, his approval trajectory was virtually identical to Obama's (PDF):
Indeed, the 1980 election was widely considered to be an electoral mandate at the time. So the fact that Reagan's initial legislative success didn't translate into increased popularity during his second year is a problem for Bai's argument.
One difference is that Reagan, unlike Obama, faced divided government, which limited his ability to enact his agenda. We could thus consider the other president who was widely considered to have received a mandate -- Lyndon Johnson, who won a landslide victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Under a unified Democratic Congress (like Obama), he was even more successful in passing an expansive legislative agenda, and yet his approval ratings declined significantly through 1965-1966 (albeit from a very high starting point).
What Bai doesn't seem to realize is that elections do not ever indicate the will of the people in some well-defined sense (there is a vast technical literature on this point). The best political science research to date convincingly argues that mandates should be viewed as a social construction. Moreover, it's not clear that presidents enact legislation intended to make them more popular. Contemporary presidents tend to pursue the agenda of their party, not the median voter. Finally, the public mood tends to shift in the opposite direction of the party in power. For all of these reasons, the appealing notion that presidential candidates will propose an agenda, enact that agenda in office, and be rewarded by the electorate for doing so rarely occurs in practice.
More importantly, given the primacy of the economy in structuring the public's view of politics, the idea that "much of the dissatisfaction with the governing party" could have been eliminated by simply "establish[ing] a rationale" for Obama's agenda during the campaign is implausible. Even if Obama and the Democrats could have anticipated the need for a stimulus bill and proposed one during the campaign, it's not clear that voters would be satisfied -- unemployment is still very high. And Obama did campaign on health care reform (albeit not in the exact form that was enacted).
Update 7/22 9:36 PM: Jonathan Bernstein also notes that "Obama had lots and lots of very specific campaign proposals... and he did, in fact, campaign on those proposals" and "all bill[s] are easily caricatured" regardless of whether you talk about them during the campaign.
On Monday, Politico published two new surveys, conducted by pollster Mark Penn, that compare the views of ordinary Americans to “elites in Washington.” the story concluded that D.C.’s elites “have a strikingly divergent outlook from the rest of the nation,”:
Obama is far more popular while Palin, the former Alaska governor, is considerably less so. To the vast majority of D.C. elites, the tea party movement is a fad. The rest of the nation is less certain, however, with many viewing it as a potentially viable third party in the future.
The survey also reveals to a surprising degree how those involved in the policymaking and the political process tend to have a much rosier view of the economy than does the rest of the nation -- and, in some cases, dramatically different impressions of leading officeholders, political forces and priorities for governing.
But do D.C.’s elites have different views because of their proximity to power? Or are those differences inherent in the demographics used by this survey to define the “D.C. elite”?; Let’s take a closer look.
That label “elite” can mean a lot of things. In this case, it means more than just members of Congress, their staffs and senior political appointees in the executive branch. Rather, this poll intended to measure the larger D.C. political milieu, the upper income portion of D.C.’s “governing class.” Here is the description from Monday’s story:
To qualify as a Washington elite for the poll, respondents must live within the D.C. metro area, earn more than $75,000 per year, have at least a college degree and be involved in the political process or work on key political issues or policy decisions.
Now this point may seem like nit-picking, but there is a difference between the thousand or so individuals who wield real power and influence in D.C. and the much larger group — probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands — who live in the region, have a college degree, earn $75,000 a year and describe themselves as somehow “involved in” politics or policy. That larger group is no doubt far easier to survey, and it may well provide a decent surrogate for the attitudes and worldview of the smaller and more powerful few, but it is different.
Next, consider that the “strikingly divergent outlook” of D.C.’s political elites as measured in this survey may owe as much to their socioeconomic status and partisanship (as defined in this survey) as to their proximity to Washington policymaking. A quick check of the cross-tabs for the Penn/Politicogeneral population sample, for example, shows that better-educated and higher-income adults nationwide tend to be more optimistic about the economy, feel more insulated from the effects of the economic downturn and are more convinced that the Tea Party “is a fad” (to name three).
Also, the 227 respondents identified as D.C. elites give Democrats a two-to-one advantage (51% to 26%) on party identification. That is probably an accurate reflection of D.C.’s upper middle class political milieu — which is certainly different from the nation as a whole — but it also helps explain some of the observed differences in attitudes toward the Tea Party, political leaders and issue priorities. Again, the cross-tabs show that among all adults sampled nationwide in the Penn/Politico survey, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say the nation is headed in the right direction (51% vs 7%), to consider the Tea Party a “fad” (39% vs. 17%) or to rate President Obama favorably (84% vs 16%).
I wonder how different the “D.C. Elites” would look compared to “elites” nationwide with comparable demographics and partisanship (i.e. with college degrees and incomes over $75,000, weighted to show a 2:1 Democratic advantage)? Maybe socioeconomic elites in Washington are not all that different from similarly situated elites nationwide.
Finally, an important postscript: Both surveys were conducted “online.” In this case, I won’t condemn Penn and Politico for conducting an online survey (though many of my pollster colleagues would), mostly because polling a “rare” population like “D.C. elites” would be prohibitively expensive using more conventional methods. But I wish Politico would have at least offered a sentence or two to describe the methodology and acknowledge that the “science” of online surveys remains a subject of debate among pollsters.
Let me try to compress that debate to a few paragraphs. Unlike most conventional telephone polls, which begin with a random sample of telephone numbers or registered voters, online polls begin with non-random “panels” of Americans who agree to complete surveys online. They are typically recruited using banner advertisements on web sites and usually receive some form of token financial compensation for each survey they complete. Online pollsters then use various methods (usually statistical weighting) to try to transform the completed interviews into a representative sample of a larger population.
How well do the adjustments work? The few independent efforts to assess the accuracy of online polling against known benchmarks tells us that online polls are less accurate, although the degree of accuracy probably depends on the application and can be hard to predict. Some argue that online panels should never be used to estimate “population values,” others consider the observed differences in accuracy small relative to reductions in survey cost (for more details see my twocolumns on this subject written last year).
(Past interests disclosed: My website, Pollster.com, was owned and sponsored by an Internet polling company, YouGov/Polimetrix, until two weeks ago, when it was acquired by the Huffington Post).
Generalizations aside, the Politico articles offered no real description of how the poll was conducted, so I emailed Mark Penn to ask for more detail. He tells me they used the e-Rewards market research panel. They weighted the general population sample by gender, age, education and race to match Census estimates (“within 2 percent”). However, they did not weight the D.C. elite sample beyond screening for the “key criteria listed of college education or higher, 75k of income and selected occupation levels.”
All of this leaves me with two final questions: How many college educated, upper-income D.C. policy and political wonks “earn e-Rewards Currency just for sharing [their] opinions?” And if the D.C. elite that are part of the e-Rewards panel have characteristics or opinions that differ from those that are not, how would we know?
ABC News / Washington Post
7/7-11/10; 1,288 adults, 3.5% margin of error
Mode: Live telephone interviews
(Post story, ABC story)
As you may know, Obama has nominated U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Do you think the U.S. Senate should or should not confirm Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court?
53% Favor, 25% Oppose
During a C-SPAN interview taped Friday, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn claimed "a lot of people are looking back with more fondness on President Bush's administration" (interview video):
Cornyn also defended Democrats' attempts to make former President Bush an issue in the 2010 election. "I think President Bush's stock has gone up a lot since he left office," Cornyn said, citing Bush's response to Sept. 11. "I think a lot of people are looking back with more fondness on President Bush's administration, and I think history will treat him well."
While conservatives may be "looking back with more fondness on President Bush's administration," there's no evidence of a general pro-Bush shift in public opinion.Here's a chart showing the proportion of the public that reports having a favorable or positive opinion of Bush since January 2009:
The trendline is essentially flat. Given the state of the economy, for which many Americans hold Bush responsible*, I wouldn't expect his ratings to improve any time soon.
* A June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found (PDF) that 40% of Americans think Bush is "solely responsible" or "mainly responsible" for the state of the economy and an additional 46% think he is "only somewhat responsible."
Update 7/19 12:59 PM: I see NBC's First Read noted the lack of change in ratings of Bush in the NBC/WSJ poll this morning. I have also embedded a clip of Cornyn's statement from Think Progress above.
During the first half of 2010, residents of Hawaii and the District of Columbia were most likely to approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president. His lowest approval ratings came from Wyoming residents. All told, there is a 56 percentage-point gap between Obama's highest and lowest state ratings.
In general, Obama's greatest support is concentrated in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, including his current home (District of Columbia), but his past homes (Illinois and Hawaii) also rank among the top 10. Many of his lower approval ratings come from Mountain West and Southern states. New Hampshire stands apart from its Northeastern neighbors in giving Obama one of his lowest state job approval ratings.
Senator Menendez is up for re-election in 2012. However, some groups are trying to hold a special recall election to ask voters whether they want to remove Senator
Menendez from office immediately. Do you think holding a recall election of Senator
Menendez before his term is up would be a good thing or bad thing for New Jersey?
24% Good thing, 53% Bad thing