Yesterday, President Obama spoke at a large rally at the University of Wisconsin that was intended to help rally the Democratic base for the midterm election. But will he and his party be able to narrow the enthusiasm gap with Republicans? The indicators aren't encouraging.
One possible obstacle was suggested recently by The New Republic's Jon Chait, who suggested that Democrats can't sustain enthusiasm when their party holds the presidency like Republicans:
The Democratic base tends to lose interest in the threat of right-wing politics when their party holds power. Republicans, I'm guessing offhand, have had more success energizing their base during Republican rule. (Anybody want to quantify this?) Specifically I'm thinking of the 2002 and 2004 elections, which featured revved-up Republican bases despite total GOP control of government.
My seat of the pants analysis is that this reflects a psychological difference between the left and the right. The liberal coalition is more ideologically diffuse and attracted to individualism. Sometimes you see left-wing splintering at the end of periods of Democratic control -- 1948, 1968, 2000 -- but more often it's simply harder to make liberals understand the urgency of preserving their party's control of power against a hypothetical threat. Conservatives, by contrast, may find the idea of rallying behind a leader more attractive. Liberals were obviously very enthusiastic about the historical nature of Obama's election, but the enthusiasm has waned since. The conservative cult of personality around George W. Bush actually seemed to peak in 2004.
Is this claim supported by the data? Gallup has asked survey respondents whether they are more or less enthusiastic are about voting than usual in every election since 1994. In previous years, I use the last available poll before the general election. However, Gallup changed their question wording this election cycle for the enthusiasm question so I rely on the June 11-13, 2010 survey (the last using the old wording) to make sure the results are comparable with previous years (the current estimates of enthusiasm using the new wording are very similar).
Using this measure, I calculate net enthusiasm by party (% more enthusiastic - % less enthusiastic) and then take the difference between parties, constructing a measure of the net enthusiasm advantage for the president's party.* (This abstracts away from features of the election that may increase or decrease enthusiasm in both parties.) The results are more ambiguous than Chait's claim:
Democrats have been less enthusiastic relative to the other party in the first midterm under both Clinton and Obama than Republicans were under Bush, but it's important to keep in mind that the 2002 election is an outlier due to 9/11. By comparison, 1994 and 2010 were extremely unfavorable electoral environments. In more favorable conditions (principally, a booming economy), we see that Democrats were relatively more enthusiastic for Clinton in the 1996-2000 elections than Republicans were for Bush in 2004-2008. It's unlikely that Democrats will close the enthusiasm gap with Republicans in this election -- the conditions are just too unfavorable -- but the historical record doesn't indicate that they are incapable of enthusiastically supporting a Democratic president.
* I relied on Gallup's tabulation of enthusiasm by party (including leaners) when available. I calculated results myself for 1996 and 2000 using survey data archived by the Roper Center. Note: The 1996 survey includes "the same" as an option for the enthusiasm question; in other years, it was only recorded if volunteered by the respondent.
Mondale recalled that President Carter, as his standing in the polls slid, "began to lose confidence in his ability to move the public." The President, he said, should have "got out front earlier with the bad news and addressed the people more." He sees a similar problem with Obama: "I think he needs to get rid of those teleprompters, and connect. He's smart as hell. He can do it. Look right into those cameras and tell people he's hurting right along with them." Carter, on the other hand, he said, might not have been able to. "At heart, he was an engineer," Mondale said. "He wanted to sit down and come up with the right answers, and then explain it. He didn't like to do a lot of emotional public speaking."
The Washington Post's Dan Balz frames the issue similarly, suggesting it's some sort of mystery why Obama "has had so much difficulty making a connection with voters on economic issues" in the context of what is arguably the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression:
One of the persistent mysteries about the president is why someone who began his adult life as a community organizer, working with economically displaced workers in Chicago, has had so much difficulty making a connection with voters on economic issues. That was a problem during his presidential campaign. From the questions on Monday, it remains a problem today.
Salon's Steve Kornacki does a fantastic job illustrating why these claims are nonsense in a retrospective on Bill Clinton in 1994 (disclosure: I cross-post on Salon). Just as with Reagan in 1982 (see here and here), an unfavorable political environment overwhelmed Clinton's ability to "connect":
It's tempting -- really, really tempting -- to watch Bill Clinton on television these days and to say, "Gee, the Democrats would be much better off right now if he were in the White House instead of Barack Obama"...
We're hearing a lot of this kind of talk this week, with Clinton back in the news, thanks to his annual global summit in New York...
Clinton, pundits are now telling us, embodies the magic formula that Obama is missing...
This is true, but only to a point. Yes, Clinton was -- and is -- one of the most effective communicators the Democratic Party has ever produced. But his gift for persuasion had sharp and clear limits while he was president, and when he was faced with a political climate like the one Obama now confronts, it was utterly useless.
That was in the 1994 midterm elections, the last time before this year that a Democratic president's party controlled both chambers of Congress. The economy wasn't as feeble, but Clinton had been weakened by a series of public relations blunders and by the success of congressional Republicans in stalling major pieces of his agenda (a stimulus package, healthcare reform, and a crime bill, mainly) and making Clinton seem ineffective. His poll numbers were slightly weaker than Obama's are now and the prospects for his party weren't good.
Nonetheless, Clinton hit the campaign trail with vigor, believing that he could talk and emote his way to a decent November result. And if you look back now and read Clinton's campaign trail words -- or watch him in action -- you'll quickly realize that all of the magical-seeming traits we now celebrate were on full display...
In short, Bill Clinton was Bill Clinton in the 1994 midterms -- and his party still got massacred. The GOP still won 52 House seats and won the chamber for the first time since 1954, and it still won eight Senate seats to control that body for the first time in eight years. And when the dust settled, the political world -- Republicans, Democrats and the media -- was united in one conclusion: Clinton was a goner in 1996. The country had tuned him out. He had lost his ability to "connect."
His experience is well worth keeping in mind now. We like to think that personality, message and campaign tactics are what define elections -- that the good politicians are the ones who put all of this together in a way that trumps structural factors like the economy. But that's just not how it works. Clinton's words -- no matter how masterfully crafted and articulated -- fell on deaf ears in 1994, just as Obama's are mostly falling on deaf ears today. It was only when favorable structural factors were again present that Clinton began "connecting" again. Obama's style may be different than Clinton's, but it already played well with the general public once, and it can again -- if favorable structural factors return.
Is Sarah Palin the frontrunner for the 2012 GOP nomination? That's the claim that's been made by some prominent commentators (here, here, and here), but it's wildly premature. There's a reason that the Intrade futures market currently puts the odds of Palin winning the nomination at 18% (behind Mitt Romney and John Thune) -- in particular, her terrible poll numbers.
It's worth underscoring just how bad Palin's numbers are. The closest comparison to her is probably Hillary Clinton, another female politician with high unfavorables entering an anticipated presidential campaign. But even Clinton had much better numbers than Palin at this point in 2006:
Also, though Palin's ability to raise money and turn out crowds has made her a star within the party, it's unlikely that she will enjoy anything near the level of elite support that helped get Clinton so close to the Democratic nomination.
I've looked back through polls on possible presidential candidates at this stage in the election cycle, and it's difficult to locate an appropriate comparison for Palin. Besides Clinton, the best comparison might be to Dan Quayle, a former vice president with extremely high unfavorables who was widely perceived as not ready to be president. As a result (presumably), Quayle ultimately decided not to run in 1996 and 2000 dropped out of the field before Iowa in 2000. Similarly, though he was perceived as competent, high unfavorables may have helped dissuade Al Gore from running again in 2004 and 2008. Here's how Quayle, Gore, Clinton, and Palin's favorable/unfavorable numbers compare from the Gallup poll question closest to this point in the current electoral cycle:
Obviously, neither Quayle nor Gore inspired the sort of adulation that Palin does today, but there's a reason that they didn't run. Given that Palin can make millions if she stays out of electoral politics, I'd put the odds of her running at less than the current Intrade estimate of 69%.
Today's New York Times includes a front-page story on a new poll headlined "Poll Suggests Opportunities for Both Parties". In the lede, Jeff Zeleny and Megan Thee-Brenan note the signs pointing to a Republican sweep, but note "while voters rate the performance of Democrats negatively, they view Republicans as even worse, providing a potential opening for Democrats":
Republicans are heading into the general election phase of the midterm campaign backed by two powerful currents: the highest proportion of voters in two decades say it is time for their own member of Congress to be replaced, and Americans are expressing widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama's leadership.
But the latest New York Times/CBS News poll also finds that while voters rate the performance of Democrats negatively, they view Republicans as even worse, providing a potential opening for Democrats to make a last-ditch case for keeping their hold on power.
Is this really true? Will the poor state of the GOP brand limit the party's gains in November? I made this argument months ago (see here, here, and here), but the Republican party's image hasn't prevented it from taking a substantial lead in the generic ballot.
To review the evidence about where the GOP brand stands relative to the opposition party in previous midterm elections, let me update my post from last October. Here's a bar chart of each party's net favorable ratings (% favorable - % unfavorable) for the most comparable available CBS poll from midterm elections between 1990 and 2010*:
The GOP's net favorability ratings relative to Democrats are still worse than any opposition party in the previous five midterm elections (the closest comparison is 1998, when Republicans were seeking to remove Bill Clinton from office).
In the past, the opposition party's (dis)advantage in net favorability relative to the president's party has been relatively highly correlated (r=.71) with changes in the number of House seats in midterm elections. However, a simple linear fit shows a totally implausible result for 2010 (Republicans losing 17 seats):
I'm not buying it. At this point, every other major factor (the high number of seats Democrats currently hold, the fact that it's a midterm election, and the generic ballot) points toward big GOP gains -- the predicted result of most House forecasting models. Unfortunately for Democrats, midterm elections are a referendum, not a choice.
Update 9/17 9:09 AM: Barry Pump points out that the net favorability advantage appears to be a better predictor in the last five midterms than the generic ballot. It's very hard to say what will happen. As he points out, this is uncharted territory:
First, we've never been in a situation until now -- as far as we have data to show it -- where both parties were disliked but one party was disliked far more than another. We've also never been in a situation where the difference between the favorability rankings of the two parties was as great as it is now. (That's from the first graph.)
Second, we've yet to be in a situation until now -- as far as we have data to show it -- where the favorability rankings of the two parties were so discordant with the generic ballot.
* I focus on net favorables rather than net approval of the parties in Congress (which Zeleny and Thee-Brenan cite) because the available data is more comprehensive and the measure is less confounded with feelings about Congress as an institution.
In the wake of the publication of a Pew poll showing an increase in the false belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, misperceptions have reached a new level of prominence in the national discourse, including a mention of the Muslim myth on Newsweek's cover. In addition, MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky released some new public opinion data on the topic Monday, so it seems like a good time to review what we do -- and don't -- know about misperceptions.
Belief in the Muslim myth has increased
As I noted at the time, the Pew poll found that the proportion of the public identifying Obama as Muslim increased from 11% in March 2009 to 18% in August 2010 and the proportion who didn't know his religion increased from 34% to 43%. This shift was corroborated by a subsequent Newsweek poll using somewhat different wording (PDF), which found that the proportion of the public saying Obama is Muslim had increased from 13% in June 2008 to 24% in late August 2010. (Time similarly found that 24% of Americans think Obama is Muslim, but no previous survey is available for comparison.)
Americans hold several false beliefs about Obama
In addition to the Muslim myth, polls have shown that a substantial fraction of the public believes Obama was not born in this country. Most recently, CNN found that 27% of Americans think Obama was "probably" or "definitely" born in another country (Berinsky similarly found in July that 27% said Obama was not born in this country.) The Newsweek poll mentioned above also found that 31% of Americans said the allegation that Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world" is "definitely" or "probably" true.
False beliefs about Obama are concentrated among Republicans
Pew found that the proportion of Republicans saying Obama is Muslim increased from 17% in March 2009 to 31% in August 2010 and the proportion who don't know increased from 28% to 39%. Similarly, CNN's poll showed that 41% of Republicans think Obama was "probably" or "definitely" not born here, a figure that corresponds closely to Berinsky's 46-47% (based on his bar chart). Newsweek also found that 52% of Republicans thought that the claim that Obama wanted to impose Islamic law was "definitely" or "probably" true. These figures are consistent with other polls showing differences by party in politically salient misperceptions (e.g., Iraq having WMD before the U.S. invasion). It's important to note that misperceptions are not confined to Republicans. Democrats, for instance, were far more likely than independents or Republicans to endorse the claim that the Bush administration was complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in a 2006 Scripps poll, a 2009 PPP poll, and Berinsky's 2010 poll.
These large partisan differences in misperceptions appear to be the result of people's bias toward factual claims that reinforce their partisan or ideological views (selective acceptance). This pattern of motivated reasoning -- plus possible biases in the information to which people are exposed (selective exposure) -- appears to result in large partisan differentials in misperceptions along partisan or ideological lines (see my research here and here for more).
Misperceptions are not simply a function of ignorance
As Berinsky and many others have found, people who know more about politics (as measured by the questions political scientists typically use to measure political knowledge) tend to be less likely to hold false beliefs. However, that doesn't mean that the problem is simple ignorance. A better approach is to distinguish between ignorance (when you know you don't know the truth) and misinformation (when you falsely believe you know the truth). Politically salient misperceptions typically fall into the latter category, which is why they are so pernicious. For instance, I found that Republicans who believed they were knowledgeable about the Clinton and Obama health care plans were more likely to endorse false claims about them (Berinsky misstates my finding on this point).
In addition, elites often appear to play an important role in spreading false claims ranging from "death panels" to the Muslim myth and ObamasupportingIslamic law. For this process to operate, partisans must be exposed to the message from elites, understand it, and integrate it into their belief system, which is not consistent with a simple story of ignorance. GW political scientist John Sides has provided evidence that is consistent with this account, showing that the persistence of the Obama Muslim myth increased more during Obama's presidency among Republicans with higher levels of education:
As TNR's Jon Chait notes, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels similarly found that more knowledgeable partisans were more likely to develop false beliefs of economic performance that was consistent with their political views:
Voters' perceptions may be seriously skewed by partisan biases. For example, in a 1988 survey a majority of respondents who described themselves as strong Democrats said that inflation had "gotten worse" over the eight years of the Reagan administration; in fact, it had fallen from 13.5 percent in 1980 to 4.1 percent in 1988. Conversely, a majority of Republicans in a 1996 survey said that the federal budget deficit had increased under Bill Clinton; in fact, the deficit had shrunk from $255 billion to $22 billion. Surprisingly, misperceptions of this sort are often most prevalent among people who should know better--those who are generally well informed about politics, at least as evidenced by their answers to factual questions about political figures, issues, and textbook civics.
The beliefs that people express aren't fixed
While the prevalence of these misperceptions has been repeatedly validated in national polls, it's important to note that the exact responses people provide will vary depending on question wording, context, etc. as in any other survey. For instance, in research with Reifler and Duke undergraduates, we found (PDF) that the presence of non-white interviewers appeared to influence how participants responded to corrective information about Obama's religion. Likewise, a study (PDF) recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that McCain supporters were more likely to accept the claim that Obama is Muslim when their racial identity was made salient.
Does this mean these beliefs aren't "real"? It's hard to know what that claim means. All survey responses are to a certain extent an artifact of the context in which they are solicited -- there is no way to measure what someone "really thinks." However, it's possible that people are expressing an ideological or partisan view as much as they are making a factual claim about the world. The strongest claim along these lines comes from Reason's Julian Sanchez, who suggests that misperceptions like the claim that Obama was not born in the U.S. are best conceptualized as "symbolic beliefs" rather than statements of what people believe to be literally true -- an argument that was subsequently endorsed by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and ABC News polling consultant Gary Langer. Determining to what extent these beliefs are "symbolic" rather than literal is an important question for future research.
Update 9/16 1:26 PM: See John Sides for more on recent research into partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics.
More and more pundits are jumping on the Democrats/Obama-are-in-trouble-due-to-bad-messaging bandwagon (for recent examples, see here, here, here, and here). What we're observing is a classic example of what you might call the tactical fallacy. Here's how it works:
1. Pundits and reporters closely observe the behavior of candidates and parties, focusing on the tactics they use rather than larger structural factors.
2. The candidates whose tactics appear to be successful tend to win; conversely, those whose tactics appear to be unsuccessful tend to lose (and likewise with parties).
3. The media concludes that candidates won or lost because of their tactical choices.
The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in '02 to Bush '06, or Obama in '08 to Obama in '09-'10). But that doesn't mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president's party, whether it's a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.
What advocates of the tactical view have failed to do is provide a viable counterfactual -- where is the example of the president whose messaging succeeded despite a similarly poor economy? TNR's John Judis has tried to argue that Reagan was more successful than Obama in 1981-1982 (here and here), but as I have pointed out (here and here), the 1982 election results do not suggest Republicans significantly overperformed and Reagan's approval ratings (both on the economy and overall) were extremely similar to Obama's at the same point in their presidencies.
The reality is that Obama's current standing -- and the rush to blame it on tactical failures -- could be predicted months ago based on structural factors. His approval ratings largely reflect a poor economy. Similarly, Democrats were likely to suffer significant losses in the House no matter what due to the number of seats they currently hold and the fact that it is a midterm election. Nonetheless, expect the tactics-are-everything crowd to be saying "I told you so" on November 3.*
* Bonus prediction: If the economy rebounds before 2012, the media will rediscover the tactical genius of Obama and David Axelrod.
The conversation since then has largely focused on the failings of the public. Slate's Jack Shafer, for instance, said adherents of the Muslim myth are "imagining things" and pointed to a poll finding that "18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth":
Don't these people read newspapers or watch TV? As a matter of fact, many do. According to the poll, 60 percent (PDF) of those who believe Obama is a Muslim also told the pollsters that they learned it from the media. Seeing as I can recall no major or minor media report that presented proof that would convince any sentient creature over the age of 10 that Obama is a Muslim, I'm starting to feel better. The 18 percenters are imagining things...
I'd be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn't also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.
Similarly, Matthew Yglesias described the misperception as one of the "odd American beliefs about politics" and noted that "lots of Americans believe lots of weird stuff" such as ESP, haunted houses, astrology, and ghosts.
Other commentators have blamed Obama himself for failing to refute the myth. The Washington Examiner's Byron York, for instance, claimed (absurdly) that "Obama and his aides might also blame themselves for the way they've handled the Muslim issue over the years" such as saying that his father was a Muslim in 1985 and speaking about his family background during a speech in Cairo. Similarly, CNN's Candy Crowley and Time's Amy Sullivan both faulted Obama for not making more public visits to church. However, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush regularly attended church services (see here and here), and no one accused them of being Muslims.*
But while pundits have been quick to blame Obama and the public, very few commentators have noted the role played by the media and political elites in misleading the public about Obama's religious beliefs. Slate's Dave Weigel came the closest, writing that "At some point it became acceptable to question Obama's American-ness, which naturally begged the question of whether he was a secret Muslim... and the WorldNetDailys, tabloids, and Drudge Reports of the world were ready to keep begging that question."
It's worth examining the scope of this effort, which has been ongoing since Obama's presidential campaign. Here's a sample from a 2009 post:
Frank Gaffney, the right-wing apparatchik last seen suggesting that President Obama's apparent bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was "code" telling "our Muslim enemies that you are willing to submit to them," has written an entire column for the Washington Times arguing that "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself" (via MM). He bases this false conclusion upon a bizarre and elaborate exegesis of Obama's Cairo speech that would embarrass even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist.
We've repeatedly seen members of the press and political figures promoting this myth (or claims that reinforce it) over the last few years. Just in the last week, Media Matters has documented Fox Nation falsely claiming "Obama Says U.S. Is a 'Muslim Country,'" Fox News running a graphic about Obama titled "Islam or Isn't He?", former Washington Times editor Wes Pruden writing that Obama found "his 'inner Muslim'" in Cairo, and Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb asking "if the president hasn't been concealing some greater fluency with the language of the Koran."
Gaffney later made the bizarre claim that the alleged resemblance of the Missile Defense Agency's new logo to the Islamic crescent and star proved that Obama was trying to submit the United States to sharia law (he subsequently retracted the claim).
More recently, the Washington Times -- led by columnist Jeffrey Kuhner -- has engaged in a months-long propaganda campaign to suggest Obama is a Muslim complete with misleading graphics:
One of the media outlets pushing
this misconception is the Washington Times, whose Jeffrey Kuhner famously published
the false claim that Obama attended a madrassa as a child. The Times has even utilized images to deliver the
message to readers at a glance. For instance:
In a July 8 Washington Times column, Jeffrey Kuhner
wrote that "Culturally, [Obama] is America's first Muslim president." The following
illustration accompanies the piece:
In an August 16 Washington Times analysis, Wesley
Pruden speculated that Obama publicly addressed the controversy surrounding the Islamic community
center in New York because "he just can't resist throwing (non-alcoholic) wine and roses at
Muslims and rotten eggs at Americans who cling to the Judeo-Christian God and
guns." The following photo of Obama dressed in clothing worn by nomadic people in Somalia accompanies the piece:
(The photo was reportedly taken during Obama's 2006 trip to Africa and pushed by the Drudge Report during the presidential primary. According to the head of the BBC's Somali service, the clothing has "no religious significance to it whatsoever.")
In an August 17 Washington Times column, Frank Gaffney
wrote: "As he hosted the Ramadan fast-breaking dinner at the White House on Friday, Mr. Obama showed his true colors on
Shariah. ... Shariah is about power, not faith, and no amount of Obama subsidies, solidarity or spin on
behalf of that agenda will persuade the American people to allow the so-called
"tradition of Islam" to supplant our civil liberties, form of
government and way of life." The following illustration accompanies the piece:
In an August 19 Washington Times column, Kuhner wrote
that Obama is "a cultural Muslim who is promoting an anti-American, pro-Islamic
agenda." The following illustration accompanies the piece:
In an August 19 Washington Times column,
Robert Knight wrote: "The proposed Manhattan
mosque is a keg o' dynamite. It has blown up apathetic Americans' benign
illusions about Mr. Obama: 'They're going to build what? Where? And he's OK
with that?'" Knight also quoted and criticized Obama's statement that "Ramadan
is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America." The following illustration accompanies the piece:
The caption under the
illustration states: "Obama's Crescent House"
The Washington Timesalsotried
this tack against Obama's second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, who
Gaffney accused of "Courting Shariah."
Finally, the Washington Times published an editorial last Friday full of innuendo about Obama's religion:
Rumors of Mr. Obama's purported Muslim identity spread in January of 2007 and were tied to Hillary Rodham Clinton operatives, who denied responsibility. The Obama camp responded that "Barack Obama is not and has never been a Muslim. Obama never prayed in a mosque. He has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and is a committed Christian who attends [The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's] United Church of Christ." That seemed definitive.
But in a February 2008 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Obama said the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, is "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset." He then recited it, "with a first-class [Arabic] accent." The opening of the Adhan contains the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, proclaiming, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God." Stating this before two Muslims is the traditional requirement for joining the Islamic faith.
Adding fuel to the fire is Mr. Obama's family heritage: born of a Muslim father and raised by a Muslim stepfather. Under Shariah law, having a Muslim father makes one a Muslim, though this custom has no legal standing in the United States.
In a September 2008 interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Obama said, "John McCain has not discussed my Muslim faith," a comment which Mr. Obama's partisans say was taken out of context. In July 2008, he admitted to People Magazine he and his wife don't give Christmas presents to their children. There is also the president's full name, Barack Hussein Obama, which as the Associated Press gently put it, "sounds Muslim to many." In fact, the name "Barack" derives from the Arabic word for "blessing" and is not necessarily Islamic, but when paired with "Hussein," which refers to Muhammad's grandson, acts as an adjective.
Suspicions were raised by Obama presidential policies, such as taking a harder line on Israel, ordering that radical Islamic terrorists be referred to only as "violent extremists" and engaging in an unprecedented and obsequious outreach to Muslim countries. Mr. Obama's bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in April 2009, didn't help matters much.
These and other reasons are why perceptions that Mr. Obama is Muslim keep growing...
None of this confirms the president is a Muslim, but it keeps speculation running wild.
Given this history, there's simply no question that elites have played a role in fostering the misperception that Obama is Muslim. It's also worth noting that describing the myth as an "odd" belief like ESP or the sun revolving around the earth trivializes its political consequences. In reality, conservative and Republican elites have repeatedly leveraged the myth to suggest that Obama is a traitor or disloyal to the United States:
December 2006: Columnist Debbie Schlussel notes that Obama's father was a Muslim and asks "Where will his loyalties be?"
February 2008: Radio talk show host Bill Cunningham calls Obama "this Manchurian candidate" but says "I do not believe Barack Hussein Obama is a terrorist or a Manchurian candidate."
April 2008: During an apperance on Glenn Beck's show on CNN Headline News, Ann Coulter asks "Is Obama a Manchurian candidate to normal Americans who love their country? ... Or is he being the Manchurian candidate to the traitor wing of the Democratic Party?"
June 2008: Fox News host E.D. Hill asked whether a fist bump between Obama and his wife was "A terrorist fist jab?"
April 2009: Frank Gaffney claims on MSNBC that Obama's apparent bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was "code" telling "our Muslim enemies that you are willing to submit to them."
May 2009: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alleges on "Fox News Sunday" that there is a "weird pattern" in which Obama administration officials were "prepared to take huge risks with Americans in order to defend terrorists" and suggests that the Obama administration was proposing "welfare" for terrorists. He then claims on "Meet the Press" that the Obama administration's "highest priority" is to "find some way to defend terrorists."
June 2009: Senator James Inhofe calls Obama's Cairo speech "un-American" and says "I just don't know whose side he's on."
August 2009: On the Lou Dobbs radio show, substitute host Tom Marr says "I have to believe that there is still an inner Muslim within this man that has some sense of sympathy towards the number one enemy of freedom and democracy in the world today, and that is Islamic terrorism."
September 2009: Gaffney says Obama is "pursuing [an agenda] that is indistinguishable in important respects from that of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose mission ladies and gentlemen, we know from a trial in Dallas last year, is to quote to destroy Western civilization from within by its own miserable hand." Conservative pundit Tammy Bruce says on Fox News that Obama has "some malevolence toward this country."
November 2009: Fox's Sean Hannity suggests that President Obama was somehow responsible for the Fort Hood shooting, stating that "our government apparently knew and did nothing" about "a terrorist act" and then asking "What does it say about Barack Obama and our government?"
January 2010: The New York Post publishes an editorial asking "Whose side is the Justice Department on: America's or the terrorists'? ... [T]he president and his administration also owe the American people an answer: Is the government's prosecutorial deck stacked in favor of the terrorists?" Former senator Fred Thompson also jokes that the US could win the war in Afghanistan if we "[j]ust send Obama over there to campaign for the Taliban."
February 2010: During a conference call with conservative bloggers, Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) accuses the Obama administration of having a "a terrorist protection policy" and conducting a "jihad to close Guantanamo."
August 2010: National Review's Andrew McCarthy publishes an entire book claiming that Obama is pursuing an agenda that will aid Islamic radicals. The dust jacket states that "the global Islamist movement's jihad ... has found the ideal partner in President Barack Obama, whose Islamist sympathies run deep." Commentary's Jennifer Rubin writes that Obama's "sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those, such as they are, for his fellow citizens" in a post criticizing Obama's statement on the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero.
Rather than faulting the public for the weaknesses of human psychology, we should identify the elites who deceive citizens with false information and hold them accountable for their role in fostering this myth. It's time to stop blaming the victims.
Update 8/24 9:09 PM: This Newsweek slideshow again takes the wrong approach. Titled "America the Ignorant: Silly Things We Believe About Witches, Obama and More," the magazine gently mocks the public for "oddball opinions" like misperceptions about Obama's religion while ignoring the role of elites in fostering the myth (though they do call out Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney for promoting false claims about "death panels" and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, respectively).
Update 8/26 9:13 AM: Via Bob Somerby, this Fox News Sunday roundtable below is a classic example of pundits blaming Obama and the public for the myth while failing to identify the elites who have promoted it. Only the last speaker, Juan Williams, even mentions the fact that these misconceptions were fostered by many of Obama's critics:
WALLACE: And it's time now for our Sunday group, Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard; Nina Easton from Fortune magazine; Kevin Madden, a first-timer on the panel -- he's a Republican strategist who was Mitt Romney's spokesman during his run for president -- and Juan Williams from National Public Radio.
So, Bill Burton says Americans know the president is a committed Christian. But according to a couple of new polls, Steve Hayes, that's not so. And let's put them up on the screen.
A Pew poll taken before the president's comments about the mosque -- and this is before the president's comments about the mosque -- near Ground Zero shows 18 percent of Americans now believe he's Muslim. That's up from 12 percent when he ran for president.
And in a Time Magazine poll taken after his comments about the mosque, 24 percent believe he's Muslim. Only 47 percent think he's Christian. Steve, how do you explain this growing misperception of a sitting president?
HAYES: Well, I think we spend -- he spends a lot less time talking about his faith in public than George W. Bush, for instance. And he spends a lot of time -- an inordinate amount of time, I would say -- talking about extolling the virtues of Islam.
It's part of his strategy. It's his outreach to the Muslim world. He's focused on it. He's given major speeches about it. We haven't seen him give similar speeches extolling the virtues of Christianity or Judaism or something else. So I think people are making...
WALLACE: Well, in fairness... HAYES: ... a leap -- and it is a leap...
WALLACE: I mean, for instance, at one of the prayer services he talked about Jesus and about the resurrection. He hasn't been seen publicly going to church that often. But he has spoken about his faith.
HAYES: That's part of it. It's not that he hasn't spoken about it. It's that he hasn't given the high profile speeches like the one he gave in Cairo.
And he's spent a lot of time talking about conducting outreach to what he calls the Muslim world. I think people are reasoning from that, leaping from that, to a conclusion that's not warranted by the evidence, obviously.
EASTON: Well, I think it predates his current outreach to the Muslim community. Nearly half of the people -- in September of '08, before the election, nearly half of Americans couldn't identify him as Christian.
He's got this odd background, this childhood where he was -- his father was Muslim -- his father who he didn't know, by the way, only spent a month with him. His father, who was Muslim, turned atheist. He's got a mother who was secular. He went to school in Indonesia. He has these ties to Kenya. So it's kind of a blur for people anyway.
During the campaign he spent a lot of time pushing back on that. He gave an interview to Newsweek and he talked about Jesus and he talked about prayer. And he -- they spent a lot of time talking about this.
They've made the decision now as a sitting president -- because of the Reverend Wright controversy, I think, he doesn't want to publicly go to church every Sunday somewhere. He doesn't want to disrupt services, is what he says.
But as a -- I think the effect of that is it leaves this confusion in people's minds, and they're able to -- see, the people who think he's Muslim are the people who tend to oppose him, so...
WALLACE: Well, I was going to get to that, Kevin.
How much of this has nothing to do with his background and -- or his father, and more to do with the fact that as opposition to his policies grows, that negative feelings about him personally also grow?
MADDEN: Well, I think that's one of the ways that you explain the trend line going in the wrong direction for the White House. But I do think that this is a lot more attributable to the way people get and retain information than it is sort of malevolent intentions by a lot of voters out there.
You know, we live in this world where there's a wealth of information. And where there's a wealth of information, there's a poverty of attention. So you have a lot of people out there...
WALLACE: Also a wealth of misinformation.
MADDEN: Correct. No, that's absolutely correct. And I think you have a lot of people who witness this debate and this discussion. And as they witness this debate and this discussion, it is the ideal breeding ground for a lot of misinformation.
So when you have folks out there -- and the interesting thing I found about the Pew poll was that 60 percent of the people said that they got their information from the media. And as we watch the media today, as we watched it this week, there is this very robust debate -- is why people thought he was a Muslim, was it true that he was, was it not true.
And because of that, people witnessed that debate and then they formed their own conclusions. And a lot of it are wrong conclusions that have to do on incorrect information.
WALLACE: Juan, I want you to weigh in on this, but also I want you to answer another question. How important is it for the president politically to set the record straight that he's a Christian?
WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think it's going to help him with people who are his critics, and I think that's largely where this is coming from.
I disagree. I think that this is an malevolent effort by people who are his critics to make him out to be the other in American life, that he's not really an American, he's some sort of Manchurian candidate. I mean, this...
WALLACE: But wait a minute. The Time Magazine poll shows that only 40 percent of all Americans -- this isn't Republicans. Forty- seven percent of all Americans think he's Christian. So there's a pretty widespread feeling.
(UNKNOWN): There are a lot of Democrats in there as well.
EASTON: Yeah, there's a lot of Democrats...
(UNKNOWN): There are a lot of Democrats.
WILLIAMS: To me, it's overwhelmingly coming from the critics. I think it's the same people who say, you know, this guy's a socialist. I think it's now about a third of Americans who -- and overwhelmingly Republicans, who say he wasn't born in the country, people who want to say that he favors whites over blacks in terms of what the Justice Department is doing with the New Black Panther Party. It's about reparations for slavery.
I think these are people who are uncomfortable with a black president or uncomfortable with his policies. They don't like Barack Obama.
WALLACE: But why would it be growing -- why would it be growing? I mean, he's been in office a year and a half. Would you think that people would have more of a sense...
WILLIAMS: I don't know if you noticed, but his approval ratings have been sinking. And as his approval ratings have been sinking, I think more people feel, you know, absolutely unleashed in terms of their criticism.
And I think the stuff that's coming from the right wing, from Rush Limbaugh and the like -- you know, Imam Obama and all that -- that has become...
WILLIAMS: ... more (inaudible).
HAYES: Look, his approval ratings aren't sinking because people have the misunderstanding that he's a Muslim. His approval ratings are sinking because the economy is in the tank. That's, I think, the fundamental problem.
This is not because there's some concerted campaign to make him out to be the other, to make him out to be a Muslim. I think it has to do with people of -- generally of good faith who are misunderstanding the campaign that the White House has launched and run on a sustained way for 19 months of a presidency in outreach to the Muslim world.
* Contrary to Crowley and Sullivan's suggestion, more aggressive promotion of Obama's Christian faith may not be effective in reducing misperceptions about his religion. In research with Jason Reifler and undergraduate students at Duke (PDF), I found that the strategy of Obama presenting himself as a Christian appeared to make Republicans more likely to endorse the Muslim myth -- a finding that is consistent with the backfire effect Reifler and I found in previous research on correcting misperceptions (PDF).
The Pew Research Center released a new poll this morning updating its measure of public belief in the misperception that President Obama is a Muslim (coverage: NYT, WP, AP). The news is not good -- belief that Obama is a Muslim increased from 11% in March 2009 to 18% now, while belief that Obama is a Christian declined from 48% to 34% and the group who said they didn't know increased from 34% to 43%. Here's a visualization of change in beliefs about Obama over time using the full time series from the Pew questionnaire (PDF):
As Pew notes, "The view that Obama is a Muslim is highest among his political opponents (31% of Republicans and 30% of those who disapprove of his job performance express this view)." If we compare these results with those from March 2009, it's clear that Republican beliefs about Obama's religion have dramatically shifted:
The most important issue, though, is why the misperception has increased over time. The Washington Post story does a good job of breaking down different possible explanations:
White House officials expressed dismay over the poll results. Faith adviser Joshua DuBois blamed "misinformation campaigns" by the president's opponents...
Among those who say Obama is a Muslim, 60 percent say they learned about his religion from the media, suggesting that their opinions are fueled by misinformation.
But the shifting attitudes about the president's religious beliefs could also be the result of a public growing less enamored of him and increasingly attracted to labels they perceive as negative. In the Pew poll, 41 percent disapprove of Obama's job performance, compared with 26 percent disapproval in its March 2009 poll.
More than a third of conservative Republicans now say Obama is a Muslim, nearly double the percentage saying so early last year. Independents, too, are now more apt to see the president as a Muslim: Among independents, 18 percent say he is a Muslim, up eight percentage points.
It's extremely difficult to distinguish between these explanations in poll data; both are likely to play a role. In particular, as Republicans and independents view Obama more more unfavorably, they're likely to be more receptive to negative information about him, including false claims about his religion.
For more on why it's so difficult to correct misperceptions like this one, see my Political Behavior article with Jason Reifler (PDF). See also our working paper testing different approaches to correcting the Obama Muslim myth (PDF), which I discussed on NPR's On the Media last year.
Update 8/19 10:20 AM: Time conducted a survey this week (August 16-17) that found similarly disturbing results. Using different question wording and response options, they found that 24% of Americans believe Obama is Muslim:
16. Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?
No answer/Don't know: 24%
By contrast, here is the wording for the Pew question:
Now, thinking about Barack Obama's religious beliefs... Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or something else?
While it's possible that the misperception increased due to Obama's comments on Friday about the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero (Pew's poll was conducted July 21-August 5), the differences between the questions mean the results are not directly comparable.
[T]here is another issue at hand: how much does the generic ballot really tell us about what will happen on Election Day? It might be the case that the generic ballot is fairly stable, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's all that useful an indicator. In addition to the fact that the consensus of polls (however careful we are about calibrating it) might be off in one or the other direction, there's also the fact that the thing which the generic ballot is ostensibly trying to predict -- the national House popular vote -- is relatively irrelevant to the disposition of the chamber, or the number of seats that each party earns. Instead, what we want to know is how the generic ballot translates into each of the 435 congressional districts; this is the sort of problem that we're hard at work upon.
Nate provides a lot of excellent analysis. But there are two pretty silly statements here. First, the generic ballot is a pretty good predictor of both the national popular vote and the national seat results. Second, the national popular vote is a very good predictor of the overall seat results. It definitely is not "relatively irrelevant" to those results. For all House elections since WW II, the correlation between national vote share and national seat share is a whopping .93:
For more on how the national vote translates into seats in the House, see Andrew Gelman and his co-authors on the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Update 8/19 10:01 AM: Silver responds here. For more on how the generic ballot can be used to forecast House election outcomes, see Abramowitz's 2006 PS article (PDF).
Political scientists Alan Abramowitz of Emory University and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have a must-read op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post busting five myths about midterm elections:
1. Midterm votes foretell future election results.
2. It's an anti-incumbent year.
3. The president's message is crucial.
4. It's all about the economy.
5. Midterms provide mandates.
File this one away for November when pundits claim that the election results prove Obama had the wrong message and is going to lose in 2012.
Back in January, I predicted the birth of a thousand "Why Obama is failing" narratives:
It's time to lay down a marker on punditry about the Obama White House. During the next eleven months, it will become increasingly obvious that Democrats face an unfavorable political environment and that President Obama's approval ratings are trending downward. Inside the Beltway, these outcomes will be interpreted as evidence that the Obama administration has made poor strategic choices or that the President isn't "connecting" with the American public. Hundreds of hours will be spent constructing elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament.
What few will point out, however, is that the Obama administration (like every White House) is largely a prisoner of circumstance -- the combination of lingering economic weakness and an upcoming midterm election would hurt any president. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel certainly didn't become any less skillful in the last few months; Obama is just playing a weaker hand than he was during the campaign and subsequent honeymoon period. As such, it's hard to know how much of the decline in the standing of Obama and the Democrats is the result of the choices the White House has made.
The latest offender is John Judis in a New Republic cover story not yet available online (see the cover here). Judis is a smart and sophisticated pundit, so I'm surprised to see him moving away from his previously clear-eyed stance on the primary source of Obama's troubles. Back in September 2009, he correctly noted that tactics were unlikely to change what he called "the lockstep relationship between Obama's popularity and the state of the economy":
Are these signs of voter discontent the result of tactical errors by Obama? Would the numbers look different if he had given his impassioned defense of national health care in February, or if he and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had been tougher on the banks earlier this year? Perhaps these tactics would have led to a temporary bounce in Obama's popularity, but they would not have changed its overall trajectory. That's because Obama's fortunes are being driven mainly by one thing: not health care, but the economy.
To understand the lockstep relationship between Obama's popularity and the state of the economy, it helps to look at two previous presidents who, like Obama, confronted a failing economy: Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan...
Similar factors [like 9/11] could certainly make the state of the economy less important in shaping Obama's popularity--dramatic success or failure in Afghanistan, for instance, or a new terrorist attack--but, for now, these factors are not in play. And that means Obama's fortunes, like those of so many of his predecessors, are tethered to the economy.
In March 2010, Judis published a story modifying his previous stance in which he claimed that Ronald Reagan was able to offset the negative effects of the economy on his political standing:
[A] president's political acumen--his ability to put the best light on his and his party's accomplishments--can mitigate the effects of rising unemployment. That's what Ronald Reagan and the Republicans achieved in the 1982 midterm elections...
Using economic models, some political scientists predicted that Democrats would pick up as many as 50 House seats. The Democrats also hoped to win back the Senate, which they had lost in 1980. But when the votes were tallied, the Republicans lost 26 House seats and kept their 54 seats in the Senate. How did Reagan and the Republicans manage to contain their losses in this midterm election? That's a question not simply of historical interest, but of direct relevance to Obama and the Democrats who are likely to face a similar, although perhaps not as severe, economic situation in November 2010.
Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with "the worst economic mess in half a century"... By cutting spending and taxes, Reagan claimed that he was showing the way toward a recovery...
Reagan stated this theme not once, but hundreds of times and in virtually the same words, and it was featured in national Republican ads....
As I noted at the time, however, modern models of Congressional elections do not show the 1982 election as an outlier; there's no statistical indication that Reagan overperformed relative to what we would expect. In addition, the polls are not consistent with the claim -- Emory's Alan Abramowitz pointed out that Reagan's approval numbers declined during 1982 and the Democrats held a large and steady lead in the generic ballot.
In his new piece, Judis briefly acknowledges the role of the economy, but argues that "the most important reason" for Obama's struggles "has been an inability to develop a politics that resonates with the public" -- namely, a populist message:
[T]here is a disturbing political resemblance between the two presidencies [Carter and Obama]. Both men ran inspired campaigns in which they positioned themselves above the scandals and partisan quarrels of their predecessors and initially stirred hopes of a "transformational" presidency. But, as presidents, both men somehow failed to connect with large parts of the electorate.
To be sure, there are a number of very specific reasons why Carter and Obama landed in political trouble. Both men contended with rising unemployment--Carter with rampant inflation as well--and voters' approval of a president and his party tend to track closely with changes in the economy. Carter faced friction in his own party and the rise of a powerful business lobby, and Obama has dealt with a Republican Party that has frustrated his dreams of a post-partisan presidency. Yet the most important reason for their difficulties--evident in their inept attempts to brand their programs--has been an inability to develop a politics that resonates with the public.
There's nothing especially mysterious about why Obama has "somehow failed to connect with large parts of the electorate" (the exact phrasing I predicted in January). Presidents tend to be more successful at "connecting" and "resonating" with the public when the economy is doing well. When things are going badly, political messages tend to fall flat. What president has ever "connected" or "resonated" in a terrible economy like this?
Amazingly, Judis even contradicts his previous article on the president's approach to the financial crisis. In September 2009, he wrote that being tougher on the banks "might have led to a temporary bounce in Obama's popularity, but ... would not have changed its overall trajectory." This time, however, he claims "What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis":
Obama took office with widespread popular support, even among Republicans, and some of his first efforts, including the $800 billion stimulus, initially enjoyed strong public favor. But that wide appeal began to dissipate by the late spring of 2009. Disillusion with Obama fueled the November defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. By January 2010, it was a crucial factor in Republican Scott Brown's astonishing victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts.
In the postmortem debate over these defeats, some Democrats have blamed Obama's dogged pursuit of health care reform while the economy was hemorrhaging jobs. That may have been a factor, but the real damage was done earlier. What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis in the first six months of his presidency. In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash, he allowed the right wing to define the terms.
After another brief acknowledgment of the role of the economy ("if the economy were growing faster, and if unemployment were dropping below 9 percent, Obama and the Democrats would be more popular"), Judis subsequently returns to the Reagan comparison:
Contrast Obama's attempt to develop a politics to justify his economic program with what Reagan did in 1982. Faced with steadily rising unemployment, which went from 8.6 percent in January to 10.4 percent in November, Reagan and his political staff, which included James Baker, Mike Deaver, and Ed Rollins, forged a strategy early that year calling for voters to "stay the course" and blaming the current economic troubles on Democratic profligacy. "We are clearing away the economic wreckage that was dumped in our laps," Reagan declared. Democrats accused them of playing "the blame game," but the strategy, followed to the letter by the White House for ten months, worked. The Republicans were predicted to lose as many as 50 House seats, but they lost only 26 and broke even in the Senate.
Some commentators have noted Reagan's popularity was even lower than Obama's. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing--and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan's program. According to polls, even as the unemployment rate climbed, a narrow plurality still expressed confidence that Reagan's program would help the economy. On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan's economic program would eventually help the country. That's a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November. But Obama has not been able to develop a narrative that could convince people to trust him and the Democrats.
Judis seems to be overstating how well Reagan's poll numbers compare to Obama's on the economy. The current Pollster.com estimate of approval of Obama on the economy is 38.7%. The Roper iPoll database shows that poll ratings for Reagan's handling of the economy were similar and perhaps a bit lower in the comparable period: 35% (Gallup 6/11/82-6/14/82), 31% (Gallup 7/30/82-8/2/02), and 40% (ABC/WP 8/17/82). In fact, at almost exactly the same point in Reagan's presidency as we are in Obama's (August 17, 1982), a Washington Post poll found that only 32% of Americans thought Reagan's "overall economic program" was working. It's true, as Judis notes, that 60% of those polled by CBS and the New York Times in late October 1982 said Reagan's economic program "eventually will help" the economy (iPoll records the sample as registered rather than likely voters). However, a followup question showed that most were talking about two or more years later. Moreover, the same poll Judis cites found that 55% thought that Reagan's program had "hurt the country's economy so far."
It's possible that Judis is right that Obama's numbers would improve if he used more populist rhetoric, but tactics alone are extremely unlikely to change the dynamic Obama faces. He's mired in a terrible economy and is likely to suffer large midterm election losses. Different tactics might make a small difference on the margin, but as Judis previously put it, "Obama's fortunes, like those of so many of his predecessors, are tethered to the economy."
Update 8/25 9:17 AM: Mark Schmitt also critiqued Judis's use of poll numbers:
While making little effort to back up the Obama-as-Carter claim, Judis makes two serious attempts to rebut the Obama-as-Reagan argument, but in both cases, he cherry-picks polling data in misleading ways:
Some commentators have noted Reagan's popularity was even lower than Obama's. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing -- and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan's program. ... On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan's economic program would eventually help the country. That's a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November.
Judis is correct that in an October 1982 survey, 60 percent answered "help" to the question, "Do you think the economic program eventually will help or hurt the country's economy?" But this result was a total outlier, even in the CBS/New York Times polls. One day later, in the same network's exit polls, when the question was phrased as, "In the long run, do you think Ronald Reagan's economic program will help the country's economy, or hurt the country's economy?" only 49 percent thought it would help. Reagan's approval rating on his handling of the economy was 35 percent in September 1982, with 57 percent disapproving. Obama's approval rating on the economy in June, in both the CBS and Pew polls, was 10 points higher, at 45 percent.
In other words, Obama commands exactly the same numbers or better on the economy. When voters in 1982 were asked whether "the economic program" would eventually help, it's possible that they were thinking of Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker's policy of defeating inflation with high interest rates, rather than Reagan's quite inconsistent fiscal program. (Shortly before the election, he signed legislation reversing some of the tax cuts of the first year, a bill which remains the biggest tax increase in U.S. history.)
Here's Judis' other stab at salvaging Reagan's sorry second and third year at Obama's expense:
In Pew's midyear report card on Obama's image, the greatest drop from February 2009 to this June was in the perception of Obama as a "strong leader." Voters will sometimes tolerate policies they question from presidents like John Kennedy or Reagan, whom they regard as "strong," but not from politicians like Jimmy Carter, whom they regard as weak.
True, Obama's biggest decline in the Pew poll was on "strong leader." But he began his term with the highest ratings on that attribute of any president since Reagan -- almost identical to Reagan's, in fact. And both subsequently lost ground.
From the Pew Polls, here's Obama's descent, on the "strong leader" question:
Jan 2009: 77%
Jan 2010: 62%
June 2010: 53%
And here's Reagan. The first data point is from a CBS/NYT poll; the rest are
Jan 1981: 78%
Dec 1981: 71%
June 1982: 44%
Dec. 1982: 41%
March 1983: 38%
(Source: Roper Center iPoll database)
From identical stratospheric perceptions as leaders, Obama has lost 24 points, while Reagan lost 40 points, a drop of more than half. Obama is still regarded by a majority as a strong leader; Reagan at the same point definitely wasn't.
Judis says, of the economy, that "if Obama could command [Reagan's] numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November." But not only are Obama's numbers better than Reagan's, Reagan didn't "seriously limit" his own losses. The economy in 1982 flipped 27 House seats to the Democrats, enough to enable the party to marginalize the conservative Democrats who had supported Reagan's policies in 1981. (Democrats gained only one seat in the Senate, probably because only 11 Republicans were up for re-election that year.) The basic, boring insight of the political scientists is right here: Bad economies hurt presidents. The advice that if only Obama mimicked FDR, he too would win seats in the midterm seems like a very simplistic form of historical analogy, about a very different and unique moment.
Reagan recovered, of course, in time for the "Morning in America" election of 1984. And so we naturally forget those days when he seemed doomed to be the fifth consecutive president to leave office a failure, rather than the first since Eisenhower to complete two terms and leave more or less respected. (I was kind of shocked to learn of the magnitude of Reagan's slump myself, although I was alive and politically aware at the time.) He recovered not because of his message or his political operation, as Judis suggests, but because the economy recovered.
Update 8/25 9:23 AM: Judis has posted a response to his critics, but he makes no serious effort to address the criticisms that Schmitt and I raised. Here's the most relevant portion:
As I said in my piece, and charted in another piece last fall, presidential approval can be expected to fall in tandem with a rise in unemployment and a decline in personal income. But as Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics has argued, it's still question of how much presidential approval, and a party's political prospects, will fall. In August 1982, Yale political scientist Edward Tufte, who pioneered the economic theory of elections, predicted that the Republicans would lose 45 House seats. By November, the economy had continued to decline, but the Republicans lost only 26 seats and broke even in the Senate.
One reason the Republicans cut their losses was because Ronald Reagan and his White House advisors developed a populist narrative that they repeated from January to November urging voters to "stay the course." While Reagan remained somewhat unpopular, his relentless campaign convinced a majority of voters that his policies would eventually work. Obama has not developed a narrative; and as a result, voters have far less confidence in his economic policies than they did in Reagan's. That could make for a big Democratic defeat in November.
But as I noted above, modern forecasting models do not show the 1982 election as an outlier -- there's no evidence that Reagan overperformed. And as Schmitt and I have shown, the claim that "voters have far less confidence in [Obama's] economic policies than they did in Reagan's" is based on a highly selective interpretation of a handful of polls. In reality, Obama and Reagan's poll numbers are roughly parallel.
Update 8/26 9:23 AM: Schmitt responds to Judis here.
CNN has released a new poll on the birther myth and the news, as usual, is depressing. Only 42% of the public thinks Obama was "definitely born in the United States" and 27% of Americans specifically stated that President Obama was "probably" or "definitely" born in another country.
Here's the wording of the question and a bar chart of the results:
Do you think Barack Obama was definitely born in the United States, probably born in the United States, probably born in another country, or definitely born in another country?
The cross-tabs by party (PDF) show that 41% of Republicans and 29% of independents said Obama was "probably" or "definitely" not born here:
It's surely not what the leader of the free world wants for his birthday. But, for a stubborn group of Americans, conspiracy theories about President Obama's birthplace are the gifts that keep on giving...
Yet there is ample evidence that defies Limbaugh's statement and the beliefs of the 27-percent of Americans that, according to the poll, doubt the president's birthplace. CNN and other news organizations have thoroughly debunked the rumors.
Most impressively, they even put giant images of Obama's certification of live birth and birth announcement at the top of the story:
For more on why misperceptions are so difficult to correct, see my research with Jason Reifler (PDF).
The poll found that misconceptions about the legislation persist, including the "death panel" falsehood propagated by opponents of the legislation.
"A year after the town meeting wars of last summer, a striking 36% of seniors said that the law 'allowed a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare', and another 17% said they didn't know," Kaiser Family Foundation chief executive Drew Altman wrote.
Here's the question Kaiser asked:
I'm going to read you a list of specific ways the new health reform law may or may not impact Medicare. For each, please tell me if you think it is something the law does or does not do... Would you say the law does or does not allow a government panel to make decisions about end‐of‐life care for people on Medicare?
The question references the charge, made originally by Sarah Palin, that the health care reform bill would create a "death panel" in which bureaucrats decide whether seniors are "worthy of health care." However, even experts who opposed the plan said the charges were false. While the health care reform law does create an independent board that will make proposals to Congress to restrain Medicare costs, the legislation specifically states that "The proposal shall not include any recommendation to ration health care... or otherwise restrict benefits" (as Media Matters points out). Moreover, these would be systemwide policy changes for Medicare, not specific decisions about end-of-life care for individual patients as Palin suggested.
Here are the crosstabs from the poll in graphical form -- it turns out that seniors have somewhat more accurate perceptions than those under 65:
Among the population as a whole, 41% said they believed the law does allow a government panel to make decisions about end‐of‐life care for people on Medicare and an additional 16% said they didn't know. The corresponding figures were 43% and 16% for those under 65 and 36% and 17% for those who are 65 years or older.
As expected, motivated reasoning appears to play an important role in the persistence of the misperception. Kaiser found that "those [seniors] with an unfavorable view are ... more likely to incorrectly think the law includes cuts in benefits or that it allows a government panel to make end‐of‐life care decisions." 55% of seniors with an unfavorable view of the law believed in the death panel myth, while only 17% of those with a favorable view did so.
Is Sarah Palin too polarizing to be elected president? This has become a central question in political commentary on the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential nominee. What people often fail to recognize, however, is that the debate over Palin's electability mirrors the debate over Hillary Clinton's electability during the 2006-2008 period.
Clinton may have a very different personal background from Palin, but both women share a common characteristic -- they have sharply polarizing public profiles. However, as this plot of Gallup data illustrates, they managed their image very differently during the pre-campaign period:
Between 2001 and 2006, Clinton largely kept her head down and worked hard as a senator, building relationships with her Republican colleagues and avoiding high-profile controversies. As a result, much of the anti-Hillary sentiment that had built up during the 1990s remained latent, allowing her to cultivate elite support for a campaign that came extremely close to securing the Democratic nomination.
By contrast, Palin's repeated engagement in high-profile media controversies has reduced her public support from the low levels she had reached by the end of the 2008 campaign (when she may have hurt John McCain significantly). Even before she comes under fire from other Republicans (as she eventually will if she runs), more of the public has an unfavorable impression of her than has a favorable one.
All is not lost for Palin, however. Though Clinton started 2007 as a less polarizing figure than Palin, the public quickly reverted to being sharply divided about her as she began to campaign actively for the Democratic nomination. Assuming Palin's remaining supporters will stick by her, she may end up with a similar profile in April 2011 as Hillary had in April 2007. In that case, a successful nomination campaign is plausible (and even a general election victory if the economy is in bad enough shape). However, her failure to improve her image during this pre-primary period may cost her the elite support she would need to win the GOP nomination.
Update 7/27 12:34 PM: It's of course possible that Palin isn't going to run for preisdent, which would certainly help explain her decision to do things like filming a reality TV episode with Kate Gosselin rather than developing her policy resume.
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.
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.
Back in January, I predicted that the likely decline in President Obama's political standing due to the state of the economy and an unfavorable political environment would spur the press to generate "elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament."
The latest pundit to engage in this dubious exercise is Slate's John Dickerson, who has written an article attributing the relatively weak support for Obama and his policies to a failure of salesmanship (via Mickey Kaus):
Death of a Salesman A slew of new polls suggest Obama is not a great pitchman for his policies.
...Economists may say, yes, the economy is recovering... but the country says no... [A] slew of recent polls ... suggest that the administration's summer tour will do little to improve the president's political fortunes and those of his party...
[W]hat's so bad about these surveys is that they paint a very dark picture about the president's ability to brighten the future. If Obama can't improve things for Democrats, no one can. And as bad as the president's numbers are, the Democrats in Congress are in even worse shape.
Candidate Obama used to joke about rays of sunshine coming in when he started to speak. Now he brings the clouds. He's spent a great deal of time talking about the Recovery Act and health care reform, but the political fortunes of those programs are dismal, which suggests his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged.
He has been trying to sell the success of his stimulus legislation for months in speeches, interviews, and events all over the country. In the CBS poll, only 23 percent think it has helped the economy. Only 13 percent think it has helped them personally. Despite all of his efforts, people are either ignoring him or tuning him out--or they can't hear him over the bad economic news. Whatever the reason, the best argument Obama has for how he and Democrats have addressed the issue people care the most about is one that people aren't buying.
The situation on health care is worse... The president has worked hard to improve the political fortunes of health care, but it hasn't worked...
In reality, however, there's no evidence that Obama has become any less effective as a salesman -- as I've repeatedly pointed out over the years (e.g. here, here, here, and here), presidents can rarely generate significant shifts in public opinion in support of their domestic policy agenda. Obama's failure to generate increased support for the stimulus and health care is not the least bit surprising, especially given the political environment in which he's operating.
The larger problem with this analysis is that Dickerson is constructing a post hoc narrative about Obama's poll numbers using the epistemology of journalism, which treats tactics as the dominant causal force in politics. Within that worldview, if Obama's numbers used to be high and they are now low, the only logical conclusion is that "his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged." The idea that Obama's numbers have declined across the board in large part due to the state of the economy is only briefly acknowledged ("or [the public] can't hear [Obama] over the bad economic news").
Update 7/15 11:08 AM: Jay Rosen flags another great example -- a long Harris and VandeHei piece for Politico that puts far too much weight on Obama's alleged political failings relative to the economic and political fundamentals:
The problem is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics, or communications -- in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built. And the promises he made in two years of campaigning turn out to be much less appealing as actual policies...
Democrats privately complain that the real power center -- the West Wing staff -- isn't nearly as impressive [as his Cabinet]. A common gripe on the Hill and on the lobbying corridor is that the communications team isn't great at communicating, the speech-writing team isn't great at speech writing (exemplified by Obama's flaccid Oval Office speech last month on the BP spill and energy policy) and the political team often botches the politics...
Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves. But, even while Obama doesn't directly control the economy, he has not been a disciplined or effective communicator about the state of the economy and his prescriptions for it. People will tolerate a weak economy if they feel there is an upward trajectory. But Obama has not managed to instill that confidence...
The article does contain a few brief acknowledgments that Obama faces a difficult economic situation ("Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves," "No politician can escape the gravitational pull of bad employment numbers and economic figures in real-time") but as with Dickerson, the implication is that the lack of popularity of his initiatives is largely the result of a failure of salesmanship.
Update 7/15 5:29 PM: CJR's Greg Marx has a similar take on these two pieces.
Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics has written an ambitious new post arguing that the state of the economy is not necessarily "principally responsible" for President Obama's approval ratings, pointing to posts by Jon Chait (citingme) and Ezra Klein:
There is no doubt that, as a general matter, the economy is an important factor in driving a President's approval (this is also true for midterm elections, see my writing here). But it is far from clear the economy is what is principally responsible for driving down President Obama's approval rating and engendering a Democratic debacle in the fall...
Obama's approval ratings are almost certainly influenced by economic conditions. But a controversial energy bill, a prolonged, contentious fight over health policy, and yes, even a "snakebit" response to the oil spill, have had a substantial effect on the President's approval ratings. If missteps continue, it could make the difference between a bad and awful midterm election for the Democrats.
Trende projects Obama's approval ratings using a statistical model from a 2002 article (gated) by Brian Newman that I sent him and compares what they would be under various scenarios he constructs -- in particular, a no-events scenario, a negative events scenario, and a positive events scenario (see his post for details), which result in the following projections:
Trende notes that the second graph seems to match observed approval ratings better than the first, and claims that it suggests the negative public reaction to Obama's agenda and oil spill response drove down his approval ratings relative to the state of the economy. That's certainly possible, though it's not clear at this point. First, there are many possible explanations for the difference between the economics-only model projection and Obama's observed approval ratings. Second, it's not clear for how long the predicted values from the two models are statistically distinct -- Trende's graphs show that they both converge to Obama's observed approval ratings in recent months. And finally, Trende's model may not the correct one. For instance, as he acknowledges, an alternate model matches Obama's approval ratings quite well using only economic factors.*
More generally, Trende's target is unclear. Both Chait and I have mocked Obama critics who fail to acknowledge the dominant role of the economy in presidential approval, but we haveeach made clear that we believe events influence presidential approval. The fact that Obama's approval apparently deviated from its projected economics-only trajectory for some length of time does not disprove those claims. At best, it comes down to a subjective judgment about what being "principally responsible for driving down President Obama's approval ratings" means.
Trende specifically criticizes Chait for this passage, which was written on July 1:
Right now, President Obama's approval rating is hovering just below 50%, about even with his disapproval rating. Given the state of the economy, that's not low. (I don't have any models handy.
However, Trende's economics-only and negative events models (the first and second graphs) show very similar values in the most recent period -- the difference may not even be statistically significant. As such, Chait's statement is likely to be an accurate one by the standard of Trende's post. Though Obama's approval may have declined faster than we would have otherwise expected, it's not currently especially low given the state of the economy.
* I'm not sure how relevant Trende's third graph is -- very few modern presidents have had such a positive experience during their first two years in office. As I noted a month ago, only two presidents of the last seven have had approval trajectories substantially more positive from Obama's thus far (Bush 41 and 43), and one of those was the result of an unprecedented terrorist attack on America. In any case, the fact that Obama's approval could have been higher in a counterfactual scenario doesn't prove that events are depressing his observed approval ratings.
Jon Chait debunks a second species of presidential Green Lanternism at his TNR blog. Rather than asserting that the president's failure to achieve a policy goal is a result of insufficient will, American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner suggests on the Huffington Post that Obama's political problems are due to a lack of resolve to pursue a more liberal economic agenda:
Come November, as Republicans break out champagne, the usual commentators will offer the usual alibis and silver linings.
The party of the newly elected president always loses Congressional seats. Not always: viz. Roosevelt, 1934, or Bush II, 2002. The two men shared nothing, except resolve in a crisis. That should tell you something. Where's Obama's resolve?
But as Chait argues, there's little evidence that "resolve" is why FDR and Bush did so well in those elections:
[T]he general trend is that midterm elections are bad for the president's party, and slow income growth is even worse. Ronald Reagan had a lot of "resolve," but he still lost a lot of seats in 1982.
Kuttner cites two notable exceptions to the pattern of the president's party losing midterm election seats. The first is 2002. I think it's pretty clear that the 9/11 attacks had an unusually powerful role here. The second is 1934... Is that another exception? Actually, no. Personal income grew an astronomical 12.7% in 1934.
So we're down to one exception to the rule: 2002. Locating a single exception to a well-established trend is not a good reason to ignore the trend.
What's fascinating is that this brand of Green Lanternism -- like the policy one -- is almost a perfect inverse of what conservatives were saying about George W. Bush just a few years ago, a fact that seems to be lost on the liberals espousing it now. For instance, Jonah Goldberg suggested back in 2006 that Bush would be more popular if he were more conservative on domestic policy:
Perhaps this unnoticed fact [Bush's alleged liberalism on domestic issues] explains part of Bush's falling poll numbers more than most observers are willing to admit. The modern conservative movement, from Goldwater to Reagan, was formed as a backlash against Nixonism. Today, Reaganite conservatives make up a majority of the Republican party. If Bush held the Reaganite line on liberty at home the way he does on liberty abroad, he'd be in a lot better shape. After all, if Bush's own base supported him at their natural level, his job-approval numbers wouldn't be stellar, but they wouldn't have his enemies cackling, either.
These beliefs are a sort of ideological Mad Libs -- if only the president were more ________ [liberal/conservative], he'd _________ [be more popular/enact the agenda I want]. It's apparently a comforting belief, but one that's rarely true.
Update 7/7 12:13 PM: For those who don't know the background, I coined the Green Lantern
theory of the presidency as a riff on Matthew Yglesias's Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics. Here's an excerpt from his original post:
As you may know, the Green Lantern Corps is a sort of interstellar peacekeeping force set up by the Guardians of Oa to maintain the peace and defend justice. It recruits members from all sorts of different species and equips them with the most powerful weapon in the universe, the power ring.
The ring is a bit goofy. Basically, it lets its bearer generate streams of green energy that can take on all kinds of shapes. The important point is that, when fully charged what the ring can do is limited only by the stipulation that it create green stuff and by the user's combination of will and imagination. Consequently, the main criterion for becoming a Green Lantern is that you need to be a person capable of "overcoming fear" which allows you to unleash the ring's full capacities. It used to be the case that the rings wouldn't function against yellow objects, but this is now understood to be a consequence of the "Parallax fear anomaly" which, along with all the ring's other limits, can be overcome with sufficient willpower.
Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.
What's more, this theory can't be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will.
Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics objects to my post on Peggy Noonan's mystical interpretations of presidential popularity and mounts a defense of non-quantitative punditry:
Non-quantitative punditry has a huge place in our discourse for many reasons, including one that is directly applicable here... [T]he most applicable problem here is that there is always a large portion of the data that have to be explained qualitatively.
For example, take the Presidential Approval models. There are any number of them out there, but all of them have a significant portion of the variation in Presidential approval (or variance, in geekspeak) that the model just can't account for. Even for models that make political scientists giggle with glee at the high r-square they've produced, there will still be about 10 to 20% of the data that the model won't explain. Political scientists like to call this "error," but it isn't really "error." It's just "other stuff we can't readily turn into data"...
All we know is that there is always going to be a large portion of data -- whether it be presidential approval, congressional midterm elections, or presidential election results -- that can't be easily explained quantitatively. This is where qualitative analysts like Noonan will always be valuable.
Trende points to the loss of approval Reagan suffered after Iran-Contra that was unrelated to the state of the economy, and the fact that Clinton didn't suffer a similar drop during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.*
I think Trende is largely doing battle with a straw man here -- I don't disagree in principle with any of these points. There's no question that factors other than the economy affect presidential approval (for instance, any well-specified model includes political events such as Iran-Contra), and there's no question that qualitative insights can help us understand why presidential approval deviates from what we might otherwise expect given the state of the economy.
Instead, my point in the original post was to criticize the tendency of pundits to invent elaborate rationales for presidential approval ratings or election results while neglecting or ignoring the role played by the economy. In both Noonan quotes, she briefly acknowledges the possible role played by the economy in explaining Bill Clinton's popularity and Barack Obama's political difficulties before deviating into characteristically involved accounts of why the most important explanatory factor is instead whether presidents are "snakebit" or have sufficiently clarified "The Sentence."
[A] recurring theme in Republican commentary has been to ignore the economy in assessing the public's sour mood toward the party in power, and to assert that disapproval of the Democrats is entirely a function of public revulsion at the liberal agenda. One could make a case that the Democrats have politically overreached. I disagree. But to characterize the backlash as driven entirely by concerns about policy, without mentioning the pull of an economic crisis that began before Obama took office, is not an argument that any political scientist, or even a candid pollster or political adviser, would take seriously. It's pure propaganda.
We can observe a similar version of this problem in punditry about presidential campaigns. Elections typically converge to an outcome quite close to what we would expect given the fundamentals (principally, the state of the economy), but pundits instead attribute these outcomes to campaign events, debates, etc. in a manner that is frequently inconsistent with the evidence (see, for example, here, here, and here).
I have no problem with punditry that helps try to explain deviations from expected presidential approval ratings or election outcomes given the state of the economy. But pundits who try to substitute their own made-up stories for the economy as the primary explanatory factor are peddling nonsense.
* Though Clinton's ratings did not decline, it does not follow that the Lewinsky affair had no effect on his approval ratings. Brian Newman's research (gated) concludes that the Lewinsky scandal suppressed likely gains in Clinton's approval ratings in 1998.
Jonathan Chait had a great post a couple of weeks ago that's worth revisiting because of what it tells us about how pundits reason about politics.
As Chait noted, political scientists have established that presidential election outcomes are largely a function of the state of the economy, particularly in an election year (the same principle applies to presidential approval). And yet pundits routinely invent elaborate narratives to "explain" these outcomes in terms of strategy, tactics, personality, etc.
One case in point is the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, who blunders into this issue in a revealing passage from a recent column:
The president is starting to look snakebit. He's starting to look unlucky, like Jimmy Carter. It wasn't Mr. Carter's fault that the American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran, but he handled it badly, and suffered. He defied the rule of the King in "Pippin," the Broadway show of Carter's era, who spoke of "the rule that every general knows by heart, that it's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart." Mr. Carter's opposite was Bill Clinton, on whom fortune smiled with eight years of relative peace and a worldwide economic boom. What misfortune Mr. Clinton experienced he mostly created himself. History didn't impose it.
But Mr. Obama is starting to look unlucky, and-file this under Mysteries of Leadership-that is dangerous for him because Americans get nervous when they have a snakebit president. They want presidents on whom the sun shines.
But as Chait points out, there's nothing mysterious about it:
Toward the end of the first paragraph, Noonan wanders toward the basic reality of the situation -- people liked Clinton because the economy was booming -- before returning to the familiar embrace of mysticism (Americans get "nervous" when the president appears "snakebit.") Rather than seeing this as demonstrating a basic correlation, she calls this the "Mysteries of Leadership."
The same principle applies to Obama. It has nothing to do with being "snakebit"; he is presiding over a weak economy, a context which magnifies all of his political difficulties.
It turns out that Noonan has made similar claims before. Here, for example, is a June 2009 column in which she briefly acknowledges that the state of the economy may be hurting Obama but then argues that his real problem is the lack of what she calls "The Sentence":
Something seems off with our young president. He appears jarred. Difficult history has come over the transom. He seemed defensive and peevish with the press in his Tuesday news conference, and later with Charlie Gibson on health care, when he got nailed by a neurologist who suggested the elites who support a national program seem not to mind rationing for other people but very much mind if for themselves.
All this followed the president's first bad numbers. From Politico, on Tuesday: "Eroding confidence in President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and ability to control spending have caused his approval ratings to wilt to their lowest level since taking office, according to a spate of recent polls." Independents and some Republicans who once viewed him sympathetically are "becoming skeptical."
You can say this is due to a lot of things, and it probably is, most especially the economy, which all the polls mentioned. But I think at bottom his problems come down to this: The Sentence. And the rough sense people have that he's not seeing to it.
The Sentence comes from a story Clare Boothe Luce told about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She told him, she said, that "a great man is one sentence." His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don't have to hear his name to know who's being talked about. "He preserved the union and freed the slaves," or, "He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War."
But again, this is silliness. If the economy was strong, public perceptions about "The Sentence" wouldn't be a political problem. What was Bill Clinton's "Sentence" in his second term? (Indeed, Noonan has argued that Reagan "knew, going in, the sentence he wanted, and he got it" and yet his approval ratings still declined substantially when the economy was bad in 1982.)
The underlying problem is that Noonan and other pundits have strong professional incentives to construct these ad hoc explanations, which emphasize their own expertise in narrative construction and dramatize politics for public consumption. Until more pundits recognize the potential advantages of incorporating political science into their work, mysticism and superstition will continue to dominate.
The narrative that President Obama's approval ratings are being heavily damaged by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is quickly overwhelming the critical faculties of the media.
Last week, I laid down a marker on this point, noting the potential appeal of the spill as a journalistic narrative to dramatize Obama's political difficulties. It appears that process is already well underway.
For instance, a story by Mark Murray, the deputy political director of NBC News, wrote an article on a new NBC/WSJ poll for MSNBC's website headlined "Poll: Spill drags the president's rating down." Murray's lede states that "Two months of oil continuing to gush from a well off the Gulf Coast, as well as an unemployment rate still near 10 percent, have taken a toll on President Barack Obama and his standing with the American public." However, given the relative stability of Obama's numbers, Murray resorts to hyping small changes:
In the poll, Obama's job-approval rating stands at 45 percent, which is down five points from early last month and down three points from late May...
What's more, Obama's favorable/unfavorable rating is now at 47 percent to 40 percent, down from 49 percent to 38 percent in early May and 52 percent to 35 percent in January.
What's left unsaid is that the changes in favorability and approval from the most recent NBC surveys asking those questions are within the poll's margin of error.
Similarly, Chris Matthews claimed on Hardball Tuesday that Obama's approval ratings "have been falling steadily since that oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico two months ago" and that "his disapproval ratings [are] well above his approval ratings":
That was President Obama just last week calling upon Americans to seize the moment in that Oval Office address. The president's poll numbers, however, have been falling steadily since that oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico two months ago. Is this just a blip on the screen for him, or has the president lost his political touch?...
Let's take a look at the president's poll numbers in the Pollster.com trend line. These are a combination of all the polls. They show his disapproval ratings well above his approval ratings.
There may well have been a small downturn in Obama's numbers in recent weeks. But as Media Matters points out, Matthews' claim that Obama's poll numbers have been "falling steadily" since the spill is overstated. Excluding Rasmussen polls, which often dominate the Pollster.com ratings due to their frequency and have a pronounced pro-GOP house effect, the shift in Obama's ratings since the spil on April 22 is on the order of 2-3 points, which is only clearly visible if we zoom in closely on the data:
In the broader view, however, the change (if it is real) is very small:
In addition, any change in Obama's approval ratings is not necessarily the result of the oil spill -- the economy (for instance) or many other factors could also affect his ratings.
In short, given what we know at this point, a more appropriate headline for reports on Obama's approval numbers is the one used by Pew: "Obama's Ratings Little Affected by Recent Turmoil." That may not be "news," but it's what the evidence tells us.
Update 6/25 11:47 AM: CJR's Greg Marx independently wrote an excellent post on the same theme, which includes a very nice useful interview with Pollster.com's Charles Franklin (a University of Wisconsin political scientist):
The point is not that Pew is right and the NBC poll is wrong, but that both data sets are legitimate--so journalists should include both, and be circumspect about sweeping conclusions. Any given poll contains uncertainty, so "until we see several of them moving in the same direction, it’s pretty hard to be sure that you’re picking up true change," said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and co-founder of the polling aggregation site Pollster.com.
Media institutions have an obvious incentive to play up the polls they pay for. But "a story written entirely from the point of view of either of those two polls would be misleading to readers," Franklin said. A more accurate story would present the fuller range of data--which remains, at the moment, ambiguous.
To be fair to NBC’s journalists, the Pew poll hadn't yet come out when they started reporting on their numbers. But they didn't need it to offer more perspective. Franklin passed on via e-mail the chart below, which shows the trend for every pollster who has conducted surveys before and after the oil spill (click the image for a larger version as a PDF):
There's a considerable amount of variation there. Taking a comprehensive view, "the trend lines do show some modest long-term decline," according to Franklin. But while supposition that the spill might become a drag on the president is reasonable, "statistical tests show little evidence that the decline is specifically after the oil spill--rather, [we see] a continuation of a very slow decline since the first of the year." What you'd need to see to make claims about the spill's impact is not a downward trend after that point, but a worsening trend--and while it might show up eventually, "I just don't think the evidence is there yet."
On Monday of this week I reviewed these data and concluded: "No Sign That Obama's Overall Job Approval Rating Has Been Significantly Affected."
Based on weekly Gallup averages, here's what I said:
There is less evidence that the oil spill has affected Obama's standing in the public's eye from a comparison of his weekly overall job approval average before the BP spill on April 20 with his average after the spill. Obama's ratings have been slightly lower in the last four weeks than they were in the four weeks prior to that, but his average in either time period is not much different from his 48% average in the four weeks immediately prior to the spill . . . However, weekly trends in Obama's overall job approval rating show no significant impact from the oil spill; his weekly average now is little different from what it was in the weeks prior to the spill.
Now. That was through last week; Obama's weekly job approval average for June 15-21 was 47%. This week, so far, Monday through Thursday, Obama has been averaging 45%. If this lower trend continues through the weekend (by no means guaranteed), then we will report a dip by next week.
But, by this point in time, it's getting more and more difficult (and it never was easy) to establish causality between changes in Obama's approval rating and the oil spill. There are other variables coming into play as each day goes on. In particular, this past week we have the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and we'll have some specific data on the public's reaction to that on Monday), plus the tentative passage of a new financial reform bill much pushed by the Obama administration. Either could be affecting Obama's job approval rating -- along with economic news, the Dow, and a host of other variables not as dramatically obvious as the oil spill.
As noted, the further away we get from the April 20 oil spill, the lower the certainty with which we can attribute changes in Obama's job approval rating to it -- or any specific event.
But the data to date do show little evidence of a dramatic drop in Obama's job approval rating immediately after -- or two months after -- the BP oil platform explosion and the beginning of the oil leak/spill.
Last week, I criticized Matt Bai's claim that it was an "ominous sign" for Democrats that President Obama's approval rating is under 50%.
Writing in The Hill, top Democratic pollster Mark Mellman goes even further, calling 50% approval a "magic number" for midterm elections:
[P]erhaps there are some magic numbers after all.
Take the effect of presidential approval on midterms. We graph the relationship between a president's approval rating and his party's gains and losses in midterm elections, thinking of the result as a smooth relationship. The lower the president's approval rating, the more seats his party loses.
But the pattern is not really so linear after all. There is a sharp discontinuity at 50 percent. Presidents whose approval rating is at 50 percent or above have lost, on average, just 11 seats in the House, while presidents under the 50 percent mark have lost an average of 33 seats.
Averages can obscure as much as they reveal, so pick apart the numbers. No president with an approval rating under 50 percent has lost fewer than 15 seats. The next smallest number is 26. Even a president just below 50 percent can lose a lot. When Democrats were punished with the loss of 52 House seats in 1994, President Clinton's approval rating rested just under the 50 percent threshold, at 48...
So where does President Obama stand? Last week Gallup put his approval at 45 percent, this week at 49. The Pollster.com weighted average of all polls says 46 percent. In short, for now, the president is hovering just below what may prove to be a magic number for Democrats in 2010.
Unlike Bai, Mellman brings historical evidence to the table, so let's consider his argument. He acknowledges the seemingly linear relationship between presidential approval and changes in House seats for the president's party in midterm elections. However, he argues that there is a "sharp discontinuity at 50 percent" in which "[p]residents whose approval rating is at 50 percent or above have lost, on average, just 11 seats in the House, while presidents under the 50 percent mark have lost an average of 33 seats."
First, let's replicate Mellman's numbers. (He appears to be excluding the replacement presidents -- Truman in 1946 and Ford in 1974 -- so I do the same here.) Using a cutpoint of 50 percent, I find that presidents with greater than 50 percent approval in the most recent Gallup poll before Election Day lose an average of ten seats and those below 50 percent lose an average of 33.5 seats (these slight discrepancies are likely the result of how different sources calculate seat change).
The problem is that the choice of 50 percent is arbitrary. For instance, presidents with approval ratings above 45 percent lost an average of 15 seats, while those below 45 percent lost an average of 33 seats -- results that aren't that different from Mellman's original numbers. Going the other direction, any cutpoint from 51 percent to 56 percent will yield the same results as 50 percent because there are no presidents who had approval ratings in that range in the data.
If you prefer graphical evidence, here is the data with a standard linear fit:
If we instead use a more flexible local polynomial fit to allow for nonlinearity, the predicted values show an inflection point around 50 percent approval, but the 95% confidence intervals reveal a great deal of uncertainty in that estimate -- hardly enough to justify a claim of a "sharp discontinuity":
With so few data points, it's very difficult to demonstrate a non-linear relationship. Absent further evidence, we can't be confident that a discontinuity exists at 50 percent.
It's also hard to believe the claim of a discontinuity in the context of the upcoming midterm elections. Given the state of the economy and the generic ballot, it's clear that Democrats are likely to lose a substantial number of seats regardless of whether Obama's approval rating is 49 percent or 51 percent on Election Day. Does Mellman believe otherwise?
Update 6/24 4:16 PM: To illustrate the point a bit further, I created a simple simulation of a linear relationship between approval and seat change that produces data approximately similar to what we observe above:
Over 1000 iterations of the simulation, the average outcome for presidents below 50 percent approval was a 12 seat loss while the average outcome above 50 percent approval was a 29 seat loss. In other words, it is very easy for a linear relationship to produce the sort of outcomes that Mellman describes.
Two important points of followup on Tuesday's post about how Matt Bai overhyped President Obama's approval rating as "ominous" for Democrats:
1. First, as Emory's Alan Abramowitz correctly pointed out in an email to me, "Seat exposure and the midterm dummy variable predict substantial Democratic losses regardless of what happens to either the generic ballot or Obama approval." See, for instance, Abramowitz's statistical model of House seat swings, which predicts a 38 seat loss for Democrats on the basis of those two factors alone.
2. Second, Rahm Emanuel seems to have bought into the hype about the president's approval rating as the overriding factor in midterms. In Bai's article, he is paraphrased as follows:
For every point that Obama's approval rating dips below 50 percent, Emanuel said, there are probably four or five more House districts that will swing into the Republican column, and vice versa.
These results are not corroborated by the statistics. Controlling for other factors, Abramowitz's model predicts that a one point decrease in Obama's net approval (approval-disapproval) is associated with a .22 seat shift toward Republicans. (He indicates by email that the coefficient for raw approval is less than 0.5.) Even the simple slope in a bivariate plot is far less than 4-5 seats per point of approval. Unless there's some massive non-linearity around 50% approval, Emanuel's estimate is off by an order of magnitude.
In the wake of President Obama's speech to the nation about BP and the Gulf last night, it's worth noting that his approval ratings have not beenaffected by the spill so far. The speech is unlikely to have a significant effect either.
I'm laying down a marker on these two points because of the likelihood that a post hoc narrative will be created in which the Gulf spill and/or the speech played a major role in Democratic losses in the 2010 midterms or a subsequent Obama defeat in 2012. This is precisely what happened after Jimmy Carter's so-called "malaise" speech, which is frequently used to "explain" Carter's subsequent defeat in 1980. Here, for example, is a random Omaha World Herald editorial from 1995 I found in Nexis:
A few commentators seized on Clinton's rumination and compared it to Jimmy Carter's 1979 "malaise" speech. Carter's call for America to shake itself out of a national malaise and regain its self-confidence was perceived by some people as a whiny effort by a president searching for something to blame for his low ratings in the polls. It's believed that in appearing to rebuke the public, Carter alienated voters, contributing to his election defeat in 1980.
In reality, Carter's approval ratings after the speech, while low, were generally stable until the Iranian hostage crisis. His defeat can easily be explained by the state of the economy, which was terrible:
Remember, dramatizing an event (e.g., Carter's defeat) is not the same thing as explaining it. It's not clear that the malaise speech had a significant effect on Carter's fortunes, and so far there's no evidence that the oil spill or last night's speech have had a significant effect on Obama's.
In the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai suggests it is "an ominous sign, historically speaking, for a majority party" when "the president's own approval ratings fell below 50 percent":
[President Obama] continued to go out and shake his head disbelievingly at "the culture of Washington," which to the Democrats in the House sounded as if he were saying that his own party was the problem, as if somehow the Democratic majorities in Congress hadn't managed to navigate the bulk of his ambitious agenda past a blockade of Republican vessels, their ship shredded by cannon fire. And all this while the president's own approval ratings fell below 50 percent -- an ominous sign, historically speaking, for a majority party...
Just about every strategist of either party in Washington will tell you that the best indicator of whether the voters are growing less skeptical -- and, thus, of whether Democrats can survive the November elections intact -- can be found in the president's approval rating. There is a political theorem that illustrates this, supported by data from past elections and often repeated by Democrats now, and it goes like this: If the president's approval rating is over 50 percent in the fall, then his party will suffer only moderately. If his rating is under 50 percent, however, then the pounding at the polls is likely to be a memorable one.
I'm not sure why Bai thinks Obama's approval numbers are so ominous. Using USA Today's presidential approval tracker, I made this chart showing approval ratings to this point in each of the last seven presidencies:
Obama's approval trajectory (in purple) is tightly clustered with five of the last seven presidents. Only two of those seven -- George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush -- had significantly higher approval ratings at this point, and neither is an especially compelling counter-example: Bush 43's approval ratings were artificially inflated by 9/11, and Bush 41 was not re-elected. It's not clear that there's anything ominous about Obama's standing at this point.
If Bai is instead referring to the fortunes of the president's party in midterm elections under unified government, then there are only three relevant first-term examples in the contemporary era: Carter (1977-1978), Clinton (1993-1994), and Bush 43 (2001-June 2002). Of those, Democrats suffered moderate damage in 1978 with Carter around 50 percent; the Republicans won a landslide victory in 1994 with Clinton in the mid-40s; and Republicans picked up seats in 2002 when Bush's approval ratings were still extremely high.
Finally, if Bai is referring to midterm elections more generally, I'm not sure what makes 50 percent so magical. The president's approval ratings are an important factor, as this Nate Silver graph shows, but it's not clear that it matters whether Obama is slightly below 50 percent or not -- he's likely to lose seats either way (as most presidents do):
In reality, other factors such as slow jobs growth and the generic ballot are far more ominous for Democrats than Obama's approval rating.
In an op-ed published in late March, I predicted that misinformation about health care reform would persist after its passage:
At the White House signing ceremony for health care legislation on Tuesday, President Obama declared, "In a few moments, when I sign this bill, all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform." For Democrats nervous about political fallout from the bill in the November midterm elections, it's reassuring to imagine that the myths about the legislation -- that it provides free coverage to illegal immigrants, uses taxpayer money to subsidize abortions and mandates end-of-life counseling for the elderly -- will be dispelled by its passage.
But public knowledge of the plan's contents may not improve as quickly as Democrats hope. While some of the more outlandish rumors may dissipate, it is likely that misperceptions will linger for years, hindering substantive debate over the merits of the country's new health care system. The reasons are rooted in human psychology...
Surprisingly, however, DNC pollster Joel Benenson suggests in a new memo (PDF) that "misinformation about President Obama's health care reforms" is "giv[ing] way to Americans' real-life experience with it" (via Mike Allen):
However, none of the poll results cited in the memo pertain to misinformation, and I haven't seen any surveys that show a decline in misperceptions about reform. While it appears to be true, as Benenson argues, that a narrow majority of Americans oppose repealing the law, it's not clear that this finding has anything to do with a decline in misinformation. Indeed, his proposed mechanism ("real-life experience" with reform) is implausible since most of the changes in the law have not yet taken effect. Absent further evidence, the claim appears to be pure partisan bluster.
For those who missed it, the ABC News/Washington Post poll (PDF) released last week included a question about the misperception that President Obama was not born in this country. They found that 20% of Americans think Obama was not born in this country, including 31% of Republicans:
What's striking is that the results are almost identical to the CBS News/New York Times poll released last month, which found that 20% of Americans think Obama was born elsewhere, including 30% of Tea Party supporters:
In short, this myth isn't going away any time soon. For more, see my previous posts on the birther myth and my research with Jason Reifler on the persistence of political misperceptions.
[D]espite protests against Arizona's stringent new immigration enforcement law, a majority of Americans support it, even though they say it may lead to racial profiling...
[T]the respondents broadly agreed that the Arizona law would result in racial profiling...
However, as a reader noted, the poll question featured in a sidebar to the article doesn't ask about racial profiling, which is typically defined as targeting individuals solely based on their racial or ethnic background. Instead, CBS and the Times asked the following:
How likely do you think it is that the new law in Arizona will lead to police officers detaining people of certain racial or ethnic groups more frequently than other racial or ethnic groups? Do you think that is very likely to happen, somewhat likely, not too likely or not at all likely to happen?
Given the composition of the illegal immigrant population, Latinos will almost certainly be detained more frequently than other racial or ethnic groups under any enforcement regime in Arizona or any other state (particularly in comparison with their representation in the population). The relevant policy issue is whether the Arizona law will lead to detentions of Latinos based solely on their ethnic background. The Times article vaguely notes that "the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer made changes to the law on Friday that they say explicitly ban the police from racial profiling," but doesn't specify that the changes bar consideration of race or ethnicity in enforcement "except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution" by removing the word "solely" from the following provision:
A law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state may not solely consider race, color or national origin in implementing the requirements of this subsection except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution.
The poll question should have asked if people believe that this provision will be upheld in practice -- that's the question in dispute right now.
Earlier this year, I noted a CBSNews.com post showing that 24% of Americans thought President Obama had raised taxes for most Americans and 53% believed taxes had been kept the same. The numbers, which were drawn from a CBS/New York Times poll conducted February 5-10, were even worse among Tea Party supporters -- 44% thought taxes had been increased and 46% thought taxes were the same. In reality, Obama cut taxes for 95% of working families.
So far, do you think the Obama Administration has increased taxes for most Americans, decreased taxes for most Americans, or have they kept taxes about the same for most Americans?
The findings show that misperceptions about changes to income taxes under Obama have gotten worse. The percentage of respondents who think taxes have gone up under Obama has increased from 24% to 34% among the general public and from 44% to 64% among Tea Party supporters:
It's the all-too-predictable result of combining misleadingrhetoric suggesting Obama has raised taxes with people's biases toward their pre-existing beliefs.
Update 4/29 1:26 PM: Per Gary Wagner's comment, I should clarify two points. First, my interpretation of the CBS/NYT question, which I think is a fair one, is that the correct response is that taxes have decreased. While some taxes have been increased, there has been a net decrease in federal taxes for most Americans under Obama. Also, some respondents may anticipate the likely increase in taxes for individuals making more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000 in 2011 as having already taken place, but this increase (a) has not happened, (b) is provided for under current law and is not the direct result of legislation endorsed by Obama (though he has declined to extend the Bush tax cuts in this income group), and (c) will not increase taxes for most Americans.
Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama struggled to overcome widespread and persistent myths about their proposals to reform the American health care system. Their difficulties highlight the influence of factual misinformation in national politics and the extent to which it correlates with citizens' political views. In this essay, I explain how greater elite polarization and the growth in media choice have reinforced the partisan divide in factual beliefs. To illustrate these points, I analyze debates over health care reform in 1993-1994 and 2009-2010, tracing the spread of false claims about reform proposals from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and analyzing the prevalence of misinformation in public opinion. Since false beliefs are extremely difficult to correct, I conclude by arguing that increasing the reputational costs for dishonest elites might be a more effective approach to improving democratic discourse.
The article covers several topics I've discussed on my blog such as Betsy McCaughey, death panels, and naming and shaming in much greater depth. It also includes a new empirical analysis of survey data on misperceptions about the Clinton and Obama plans -- here's the key graph showing the perverse relationship between perceived and actual knowledge of the plans among opposition partisans (the y-axis is the predicted level of belief in the listed misperception):
Please read my article to find out more. (Note: It's part of a special issue of The Forum on health care reform that's worth checking out.)
On average, about what percentage of their household incomes would you guess most Americans pay in federal income taxes each year -- less than 10 percent, between 10 and 20 percent, between 20 and 30 percent, between 40 and 50 percent, or more than 50 percent, or don't you know enough to say?
As a reader pointed out to me, there's no way for a respondent to know how to answer this question due to the ambiguity inherent in combining "most Americans" with "[o]n average." Many respondents might think that "most Americans" can't be grouped into one of those categories, and others might be confused by how to define "most."
As it turns out, the bottom four quintiles (i.e. the bottom 80%) pay an average effective individual federal income tax rate of less than ten percent -- an answer that was given by only 5% of respondents to the poll. However, as David Leonhardt recently pointed out, federal income taxes are only part of the overall federal tax burden; the average effective federal tax rate including payroll taxes, corporate taxes, and federal excise taxes is 22%. This number, rather than the income tax burden, is probably the more relevant one to poll on since most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income tax. Let's hope CBS and the Times go back to the drawing board with this question.
Update 4/21 8:24 PM: In response to comments on my blog, I've updated the post to clarify some ambiguous language and to correct an error (following Leonhardt, I wrongly classified capital gains taxes as separate from, rather than part of, individual federal income taxes).
CBSNews.com's Stephanie Condon reports that the myth of Barack Obama being born in another country is not going away. The new CBS/New York Times poll shows that only 58% of Americans, and 41% of self-identified Tea Party supporters, think he was born in the United States:
Although the Constitution requires American presidents to be natural born citizens, as many as 30 percent of Tea Partiers say they think President Obama was born in another country, according to a new CBS News/ New York Times poll. More Tea Partiers, however, at 41 percent, say he was born in the U.S.
The so-called "birther movement," questioning Mr. Obama's origins, began during his presidential campaign. It has steadily persisted through Mr. Obama's presidency, in spite of overwhelming evidence he was born in the United States -- including his 1961 birth announcement, printed in two Hawaii newspapers.
The myth persists among the larger American population, but to a lesser degree, according to the poll, conducted April 5 - 12. Thirty-two percent of Republicans think the president was born in another country.
Among Americans overall, 58 percent think Mr. Obama was born in this country, while 20 percent say he was born elsewhere. Significant percentages aren't sure or don't have an opinion.
In yet another 1994/2010 comparison piece, the New York Times suggests, as I once did, that the Republican Party's image problems might limit its gains in November:
Moreover, the Republican Party has a different image than it did in 1994. At that time, Republicans had been out of control of Congress for long enough that they were able to present themselves as the party of change. They were viewed unfavorably by just 39 percent of Americans. By contrast, 57 percent said in February that they had an unfavorable view of Republicans in a New York Times/CBS News poll.
While it's true that Republicans are viewed more negatively than they were in 1994, that's not the relevant comparison in 2010. Electoral politics is a zero-sum game. What matters is the strength of the Republican image relative to Democrats. And as I showed a couple of weeks ago, the gap between the parties' images is now comparable to 1994:
As such, there's no reason to think that the GOP's negative image will protect Democrats, especially given the likelihood that the Republican brand will continue to gain luster (as it did between June and November 1994). For the purposes of campaigning, all poll numbers are relative.
Back in October, I noted that the GOP's brand (as measured by its favorable/unfavorable ratings) was in much worse shape than any opposition party at that stage in the previous four midterm election cycles. That stigma, Isuggested, might limit Republican gains in the November midterm elections relative to a 1994-style scenario.
Things have changed, however. In a column for Roll Call, Stuart Rothenberg flags a new NBC/WSJ poll (PDF) suggesting that the Democratic brand has lost most of its advantage relative to the GOP.
Unfortunately for Democrats, their own brand has fallen like a rock.
In April, almost a year ago, the Hart/McInturff poll found 45 percent of Americans with a positive view of the Democratic Party and 34 percent with a negative view. In the most recent Hart/McInturff survey, the Democratic Party's positives have sunk to 37 percent and its negatives have risen to 43 percent. Yes, those numbers are slightly better than the GOP's (31 percent positive/43 percent negative), but not enough to help Democrats in the fall.
Here's how the net positive numbers (% positive-% negative) for Democrats and Republicans have changed over the course of Obama's presidency:
Perceptions of the GOP have only improved a bit, but the negative press and opposition party criticism faced by Democrats have apparently taken their toll. Since my original post in October, the difference in net positive numbers between the parties has closed from 27 points to 6 -- a decline that coincides with the most intense stage of the health care reform debate.
As a result of this change, the difference between the major party brands no longer appears to be unusual for this stage in the midterm election cycle (polls in the chart were the closest available):
I interpret this shift as reflecting the underlying fundamentals of the election cycle, which favors the GOP (a Republican takeover of the House is a realistic possibility). The question now is whether the Republicans will continue to gain ground. In 1994, the GOP opened up a major lead in perceptions of the party relative to Democrats between June and October:
I still don't expect a 1994-style landslide in November, but it seems clear that the Democratic valence advantage that might have helped prevent such an outcome has evaporated.
In today's New York Times, Peter Beinart describes President Obama as having "failed in the effort to be the nonpolarizing president" and calls him "our third highly polarizing president in a row":
"Let's face it, he's failed in the effort to be the nonpolarizing president, the one who can use rationality and calm debate to bridge our traditional divides," said Peter Beinart, a liberal essayist who is publishing a history of hubris in politics. "It turns out he's our third highly polarizing president in a row. But for his liberal base, it confirms that they were right to believe in the guy -- and they had their doubts."
There's no question that Obama has highly polarized approval ratings. It's less clear whether he could have done anything to avoid this fate, particularly given the GOP strategy of unified opposition to his initiatives. Beinart seems to think Obama's decision not to scale back health care reform was polarizing, but as Matthew Yglesias points out in The Daily Beast there was no one in the GOP caucus to compromise with. And even if Obama had struck a deal with a handful of moderate Republicans, does anyone think it would have closed the partisan gap in his approval ratings?
In general, the problem with Beinart's analysis, which seems to fault Obama for this outcome, is that it's virtually impossible to be a non-polarizing president in contemporary American politics. Like George W. Bush, Obama made unrealistic promises to bring the parties together, but there was little chance he would succeed. As UCSD's Gary Jacobson has shown, presidential approval ratings by party have diverged widely over the last thirty or so years (the one partial exception is George H.W. Bush, a non-conservative holdover from the pre-Reagan era):
For the foreseeable future, every president will have highly polarized approval ratings outside of honeymoon periods, wars, and foreign policy crises. Obama's inability to escape this fate isn't a "failure" so much as it is, well, reality.
Update 3/22 11:53 AM: There's a similar passage in David Sanger's news analysis in the Times above Boehlert's quote that I should have included (via Eric Boehlert):
But there is no doubt that in the course of this debate, Mr. Obama has lost something -- and lost it for good. Gone is the promise on which he rode to victory less than a year and a half ago -- the promise of a "postpartisan" Washington in which rationality and calm discourse replaced partisan bickering.
As I've repeatedly noted, journalists have a tendency to attribute electoral outcomes and poll ratings to political tactics rather than the underlying fundamentals (most notably, the state of the economy). That's why the current Obama blame game has been so painfully predictable.
The latest example comes from TNR's John Judis. To his credit, Judis has previously written about the central importance of the economy to presidential approval. Nonetheless, his most recent article suggests that Ronald Reagan's "thematic" communication strategy limited GOP losses in the 1982 elections and should therefore be instructive for the Obama administration:
[A] president's political acumen--his ability to put the best light on his and his party's accomplishments--can mitigate the effects of rising unemployment. That's what Ronald Reagan and the Republicans achieved in the 1982 midterm elections...
Using economic models, some political scientists predicted that Democrats would pick up as many as 50 House seats. The Democrats also hoped to win back the Senate, which they had lost in 1980. But when the votes were tallied, the Republicans lost 26 House seats and kept their 54 seats in the Senate. How did Reagan and the Republicans manage to contain their losses in this midterm election? That's a question not simply of historical interest, but of direct relevance to Obama and the Democrats who are likely to face a similar, although perhaps not as severe, economic situation in November 2010.
Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with "the worst economic mess in half a century"... By cutting spending and taxes, Reagan claimed that he was showing the way toward a recovery...
Reagan stated this theme not once, but hundreds of times and in virtually the same words, and it was featured in national Republican ads....
Obama understood the importance of thematic politics in his presidential campaign, but he and his political advisors have yet to find a way to characterize what he has tried to do as president...
In general, I'm skeptical of claims that Reagan's communication style had large macro effects on politics. Here's what I wrote, for instance, about a similar claim by the New Yorker's George Packer:
Packer suggests the President needs to convey "a strong worldview" like Ronald Reagan, who supposedly succeeded despite the recession of 1981-1982 and political compromises with Democrats because he conveyed such a worldview: "Reagan could recover from battlefield setbacks because he was fighting a larger war."
In reality, Reagan "could recover" because the economy recovered. His supposedly clearer worldview didn't seem to change media coverage or his approval ratings in 1981-1982 when the economy was at its worst. There's no reason to think that speeches conveying a clearer worldview would have a significant effect on Obama's standing.
To see if this intuition held up, I asked Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who is forecasting the 2010 election, if there's any evidence to support Judis's claim that the GOP overperformed in 1982 relative to what we would have otherwise expected. Here's what he wrote:
Interesting question. The model predicts a loss of 27 seats and the actual loss was 26 seats. That's using a model with separate dummy variables for first and second midterms. With a single dummy variable, the predicted seat loss is 32 or 33 seats. Still very close to the actual seat loss. But two of the predictors in the model are the generic ballot and net presidential approval in late August or early September, both of which could possibly be influenced by presidential actions. I'd have to go back and check whether either one showed any improvement for the GOP during the spring and summer of 82. My guess is that they did not, though, in which case the Reagan strategy argument would be undermined.
After checking, he reported back:
First, Reagan's approval rating sank during 1982. He started out in the upper 40s and ended up in the low 40s by the time of the election. Not exactly an indication that his strategy was working to help Republicans in the midterm election. You'd want a higher approval rating, not a lower approval rating.
Second, the Democratic lead in the generic ballot was large throughout the year and never diminished. The average lead was 12 points in January, 18 points in April, 20 points in May-July, 18 points in August, and 19 points in the last pre-election poll in late September. So no sign there that Reagan's strategy was working.
Abramowitz also verified that these results were not affected by the inclusion of the 1982 election by excluding it from the data used to forecast the outcome of that election:
The out of sample forecasts are a loss of 33 seats for the model with the simple midterm dummy variable and a loss of 27 seats for the model with separate first and second midterm dummy variables--82 was a first midterm of course, so a slightly smaller seat loss is predicted. Not bad.
Similarly, while Judis cites relatively old forecasts of House seat change in the 1982 election, a more recent model perfectly forecasts the net House seat change for 1982 out of sample (i.e., excluding data from that year).
In short, don't buy the hype. Reagan may have been an effective communicator, but we attribute his success to those skills in large part because the economy rebounded in time to create a landslide in his 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale. There's no convincing evidence that his "thematic" approach improved the GOP's performance in 1982. For the same reasons, while Obama's communications strategy could probably be improved, it's not clear that doing so would significantly change the outcome in November.
Update 3/19 10:00 AM: I passed on a commenter's request for comparable Senate projections for 1982 to Abramowitz. Here's what he wrote:
The models (they're identical to the House models) predict Republican losses of 2 or 3 seats. The actual result was a loss of 1 (or 0 if you factor in pickup of Byrd's seat in VA). The key here is that Republicans were only defending 13 seats vs. 19 Dem seats in 82.
In other words, the Senate results, like those in the House, can largely be explained by the political fundamentals. There's no evidence that Reagan's message caused Republicans to perform unusually well in 1982.
Actually, the poll isn't especially shocking. As The Hill points out, "52 percent of Americans said President Barack Obama doesn't deserve reelection in 2012" -- a number that is almost identical to the proportion who disapprove of the job he's doing (50%).
For context, a Fox News poll in August 2001 asked the following question about George W. Bush:
Considering how President (George W.) Bush has performed so far, do you think he deserves to be reelected or would the country probably be better off with someone else as president?
The results? 36% said Bush deserved to be reelected, 42% said the country would be better off with someone else, and 22% said it depends or weren't sure. These numbers are actually worse than Obama's relative to the 55% approval/32% disapproval numbers the Fox poll showed for Bush.
Back in January, I predicted a rash of process-based explanations of President Obama's declining political fortunes in 2010:
During the next eleven months, it will become increasingly obvious that Democrats face an unfavorable political environment and that President Obama's approval ratings are trending downward. Inside the Beltway, these outcomes will be interpreted as evidence that the Obama administration has made poor strategic choices or that the President isn't "connecting" with the American public. Hundreds of hours will be spent constructing elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament.
Within two weeks, the narratives about Obama not "connecting" arrived thanks to Scott Brown's victory in the special election for the open Senate seat in Massachusetts.
It's now been about a month since I wrote the original post. After tiring of the "not connecting" narrative, the press has now moved on to blaming Obama's advisors for his political problems. Congressional Democrats have quickly gotten on board, implausibly blaming Rahm Emanuel for not targeting more conservative Senate Republicans on health care.
Obama's staff certainly has made mistakes, but I doubt they are the principal cause of the administration's problems. As I've pointed out before, good fundamentals make political strategists look like geniuses and bad fundamentals make the same strategists look like idiots. In other words, staff performance is largely a reflection of the political fundamentals (in particular, the economy), not the cause of a president's success or failure.
Unfortunately for Obama's staff, they're under siege from all sides. The political press needs a dramatic narrative in which the President's problems are the result of failed political tactics; Democrats need a scapegoat; and Republicans want a scalp (particularly Emanuel's). If the year doesn't go well for Obama, it's likely that someone will be thrown overboard.
PS I predict Mickey Kaus is ahead of the curve on phase three, which will be to blame Obama himself for poor strategic choices.
Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and his advisers have repeatedly claimed that they don't listen to DC's conventional wisdom. But Obama's decision to propose a freeze of discretionary non-security spending suggests that the White House misunderstands the problem in the same way as most of the rest of Washington.
The problem, as I've argued, is that Obama's political fortunes are closely tied to the economy -- a variable over which he has relatively little control. With his first midterm election approaching and the economy in terrible shape, an anti-presidential backlash was a virtual certainty. Obama's approach to health care or the economy may have exacerbated this backlash -- the public tends to move in the opposite direction from public policy (though usually after some lag) -- but it's highly unlikely that Obama's policies or communication strategies were the primary cause of his declining approval ratings.
The decision to respond to this problem with a partial spending freeze is both bad politics and bad economics. From an economic perspective, Obama faces a serious risk of a long period of slow growth or even a double-dip recession. He has no politically feasible jobs agenda; his proposed tax credit is tiny relative to the scale of the problem. Imposing additional limits at government spending will only make the problem worse.
From a political perspective, Obama's gesture will have very little effect. The idea seems to be that it will appeal to independents and Republicans who are concerned about the deficit. However, most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents will not support Obama no matter what he does. They may say they are concerned about the deficit or government spending, but if those concerns are addressed they are likely to find other reasons to oppose the administration. (In addition, their perceptions are likely to be biased.) Deficits might hurt Obama on the margin, but in most cases I tend to think that they're a convenient reason to cite for opposing a president you wouldn't like anyway.
Just to underscore the magnitude of the political and economic problem Obama faces, the White House budget, which was released today, projects "8.9 percent unemployment at the end of 2011, and 7.9 unemployment percent by the end of 2012." While unemployment isn't as good a predictor of election outcomes as income growth, these figures underscores the difficult path to re-election that Obama currently faces. He can still win in 2012 -- seasonally adjusted unemployment in December 1983 was 8.3% and Reagan went on to beat Mondale in a landslide -- but he needs significant growth to do it (regression line excludes the outliers of 1952 and 1968):
Given the historical record, the downside risk of suboptimal economic policy vastly outweighs the symbolic appeal of spending freezes and other short-term deficit measures. Unfortunately for Obama, this is one issue where his administration appears to buy into the conventional wisdom.
Update 2/2 1:30 PM: Matthew Yglesias makes the point more eloquently in a post linking to this one:
Roughly speaking, people got it into their heads over the years that "deficits" are "bad" (which is usually true, but also pretty simplistic) and then the economic situation became very bad, so people have decided that large deficits must be the problem. This is a misunderstanding. An application of a crude, sorta-correct rule of thumb to an unusual situation. It also involves people confusing cause and effect. Steep economic downturns cause large deficits, which is bad. But the deficit is the symptom rather than the cause. Meanwhile, as Brendan Nyhan observes the Obama administration seems eager to pile bad political science on top of the mass public's bad economics. People are upset, and they say they want a smaller deficit. So Obama's proposing to give it to them, and seems to have no intention of doing anything about its own forecast of a years-long bleak economic situation.
In political terms, though, the actual performance of the economy in 2012 is going to be much more important to Obama's re-election than the budget deficit. In particular, by directing its policymaking more at the things that the public thinks are the cause of economic problems rather than the things that economists think are the cause of economic problems, the administration is making is running a huge risk of GOP takeover of the House in 2010. What's more, they've left themselves with almost no margin of error for their own re-election. And for double-irony, the very members of congress who are most endangered by poor short-term economic performance are the ones who are doing the most to urge the administration to adopt a fiscal retrenchment agenda. The faith in vox populi that this reflects ("the public will reward me for doing what they said they wanted me to do, even if it turns out not to work at all") is sort of touching, but really lacks any basis in the evidence. It's fascinating to me how few professional political operatives or reporters seem interested in systematic studies of US politics.
-Seth Masket on pundits misunderstanding Obama's problems
-John Sides on the overemphasis on process as the problem in the health care debate
-Jon Chait on Peter Wehner ridiculing "structural factors" as the primary reason for Obama's decline
Via John Sides, David W. Brady, Daniel P. Kessler, and Douglas Rivers have published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that is likely to fuel Democratic panic in Washington over health care:
The majority party normally loses seats in midterm elections, but the Republican resurgence of recent months is more than a conventional midterm rebound. How can a little known Republican run a competitive Senate campaign in Massachusetts? The culprit is the unpopularity of health reform, and it means that Democrats will face even worse problems later this year in less liberal places than Massachusetts.
We have polled voters in 11 states likely to have competitive Senate races in November on how they feel about health reform and how they might vote in November...
Health reform is more popular in some of these states than in others. Where it's popular, Democratic candidates don't have too much of a problem, but where it's unpopular--and that includes most states--the Democratic Senate candidates are fighting an uphill battle...
Support for the Republican Senate candidates in these races is closely related to voter opposition to the health-care Senate bill...
How do we know that it's the health-reform bill that's to blame for the low poll numbers for Democratic Senate candidates and not just that these are more conservative states?
First, we asked voters how their incumbent senator voted on the health-care bill that passed on Christmas Eve. About two-thirds answered correctly. Even now, long before Senate campaigns have intensified, voters know where the candidates stand on health care. And second, we asked voters about their preference for Democrat versus Republican candidates in a generic House race. As in the Senate, the higher the level of opposition to health reform, the greater the likelihood that the state's voters supported Republicans.
Brady and Rivers are highly respected political scientists (I'm not familiar with Kessler), but I'm not sure we can draw strong conclusions from these data. Since health care passed on a perfect party line vote in the Senate, it's relatively easy to know where an incumbent stands on the issue. And given the salience of the health care debate, the correlation between state opposition to health care reform and support for Republican senate candidates is (a) not surprising and (b) not necessarily causal (especially given that those are aggregate measures).
I tend to think that much of the health care fallout is an expression of economic discontent, but there's certainly an argument to be made that it has exacerbated the public's predictable turn away from liberalism. In either case, however, disentangling these factors is extremely difficult.
The question of the moment is what effect Scott Brown's victory will have on national politics.
It's important to note that his election to the Senate does relatively little to change the overall balance of power in the country. See, for instance, Joshua Tucker's helpful chart:
The loss of Democrats' filibuster-proof majority seems to eliminate the prospect of passing the health care bill through conference committee, but for other legislation, the shift of the pivotal voter from Ben Nelson to Olympia Snowe in the Senate is likely to have a relatively small direct effect. Nelson is currently paying a heavy political price in Nebraska for his support of the health care bill and is unlikely to take a similar risk on future legislation. (On a more technical level, Tucker also notes that the gap between Nelson and Snowe's ideal points is probably relatively small -- see, for instance, Simon Jackman's estimates [PDF].)
Similarly, we knew Democrats faced an unfavorable environment two weeks ago and that the health care reform plan was relatively unpopular in national polls. Not much has changed on either front.
What matters, however, is the collective interpretation of the election. Even though Brown's victory was an ambiguous amalgam of national and local factors, including Coakley's hapless campaign and poor economic conditions, the media is already portraying the outcome as a referendum on President Obama (though a majority of Massachusetts voters approve of his performance) and health care (even though Brown supports a very similar state-run plan in Massachusetts). Debatable as they may be, these interpretations may quickly become conventional wisdom -- indeed, many Democrats have already endorsed them.
The most relevant comparison to the current situation might be electoral mandates. The seminal political science research on the subject shows that opposition party legislators tend to deviate from their typical voting patterns in the direction of a perceived mandate for some period of time before returning to normal.
Given the Democratic tendency to panic in these types of situations, we may see a similar shift in voting patterns or a change in the party's legislative agenda. Pundits will likely claim that Democrats should yield to public opinion as expressed by Massachusetts voters. But it's not at all clear that such moves will prevent significant losses in the November midterms, nor that there is a "message" from Brown's victory as such.
Update 1/20 1:50 PM: Based on Brown's voting record as a state legislator, political scientist Boris Shor estimates that he will become the Senate filibuster pivot rather than Snowe. As I've previously argued, I think Brown moved right to motivate the GOP base in a low-turnout special election, so I'm skeptical he'll pursue such a moderate course (at least right away). But if Shor is correct and Brown is between Nelson and Snowe, it reduces the rightward shift in the filibuster pivot, meaning that Brown's win would have an even smaller effect than we might have otherwise thought.
Update 1/21 9:36 AM: See also John Sides on the need to admit what we don't know about the MA results and Greg Marx on the media's misguided attempts to distill a "message" from the election.
Update 1/22 9:44 AM: Via Matthew Yglesias, Alec MacGillis reports in the Washington Post that "Brown's victory in Mass. senate race hardly a repudiation of health reform."
Tom Edsall quoted me in a Huffington Post article today on the 2010 elections:
There are, however, a number of factors that suggest 2010 will be quite different from the Democratic rout of 1994 -- the so-called Gingrich Revolution. "First, 1994 was the culmination of the South moving into the Republican column; there's no equivalent regional shift trending against Democrats in this cycle. Second, the GOP brand is still in terrible shape relative to 1993-1994," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
For more, see this post on the 1994/2010 comparison from September. The statement about the Republican brand is a reference to this post, which shows that the GOP's net favorables in August 2009 were the worst since 1993 for an opposition party in the first year after a presidential election.
My assessment is roughly in line with the other political scientists Edsall quoted, Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin and Pollster.com and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia:
"I'd say a loss of 20-30 seats, but not yet in the high 30s to make change of control a probable outcome," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin, who bases his prediction on historical precedents. "Presidential support needs to be in the low 40s to predict a very large loss of seats, based on post WWII data. Also, the GDP [Gross Domestic Product] per capita should be in decline or very small gains. At the latest revision of 2.2% in the third quarter, we are low but not as low as in worst midterms for parties."
The economy remains the crucial unknown: "If GDP grows at a three percent or so rate through the election, I think approval will turn up into the 50s, and that probably leads to Republican gains of 15 to 20 seats, which historically wouldn't be bad for the Democrats," Franklin says. If GDP begins to decline, "then approval will fall more and Democrats could be looking at 30-plus lost seats -- still a stretch for Republicans to gain control, but not out of reach."
..."There are several differences with 1993," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. "First, Democrats then didn't believe it was possible for them to lose the House; now they know better and are more cautious." In addition, he says, there have been fewer retirements this year; the Democratic base after Obama's 53 percent win is stronger than it was when Clinton only won a 43 percent plurality in 1992; and the public image of the GOP was much better in the early 1990s than it is now.
For context, here's a lightly edited version of what I sent to Edsall:
As far as the House, I've seen nothing that would dramatically change what I wrote back in September. The Democrats will almost surely lose a significant number of seats, but at this point I still expect them to narrowly retain their majority. Also, there are two important differences between 2010 and 1994. First, 1994 was the culmination of the South moving into the Republican column; there's no equivalent regional shift trending against Democrats in this cycle. Second, the GOP brand is still in terrible shape relative to 1993-1994.
In terms of Obama's coalition, I don't think the decline so far has been especially dramatic (at least relative to my expectations). He started off with honeymoon levels of approval we haven't seen in some time, but now he's reverting toward where Reagan and Clinton were at this point in their term. We shouldn't have expected anything different -- Republicans and GOP-leaning independents were going to revert to disapproval of him as soon as he did anything controversial. Also, we expect him to (a) suffer from the poor economy (b) face a public that trends toward a preference for less government during a period of unified Democratic control and (c) lose seats in his first midterm like most recent presidents. Given all of those factors, I think he's in pretty good shape.
In related news, the Intrade futures market currently estimates the probability of the Democrats retaining control of the House at 66.5%:
If Congress passes Mr. Obama's health care bill, the White House -- and many independent analysts -- believe that the accomplishment of a signature campaign promise is likely to push the president's approval ratings back up.
I can see why the White House might make this argument to wavering Senate moderates, but who are these unnamed "independent analysts" and what are they talking about? I don't know any reason to expect that Obama will receive a significant approval boost from passage of health care.
Let's consider the last three presidents who passed a "signature campaign promise" during their first year in office -- Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. (I'm omitting George H.W. Bush, who didn't have much of a domestic agenda.)
-Bill Clinton signed his deficit reduction bill on August 10, 1993 (the major votes were on August 5 and 6). You can argue about whether this was a "signature campaign promise" (Clinton increased his focus on the deficit after taking office), but it was the major legislative accomplishment of his first year in office and there's no evidence he received a boost from it:
[Bill passes August 5-6]
[Bill signed August 10]
-Finally, there's George W. Bush, who passed his tax cut bill on May 26, 2001 and signed it into law on June 7, 2001 -- as with the previous two examples, there was no discernable bump in approval (I'm omitting the bipartisan No Child Left Behind bill, but the story is the same there):
[Bill passes May 26, signed June 7]
The larger story here is that many journalists and political operatives have a wildly exaggerated view of the president's ability to change public opinion outside of a foreign policy context (as with the Obama's health care speech). The reality is that Obama, like his predecessors, is largely at the mercy of the economy and external events unless a new war or foreign policy crisis emerges.
Update 11/25 8:50 PM: Via a reader comment below, here's another useful comparison -- LBJ's approval numbers when Medicare was enacted (it passed Congress July 27-28, 1965, and was signed into law on July 30):
Least plausible political argument I've seen today -- Matthew Continetti's Wall Street Journal op-ed claiming
Sarah Palin's "poll numbers among independents are strong enough to give her a chance" to make a comeback (coincidentally, he wrote a book defending her). Here's the key passage on Palin's poll numbers:
Ms. Palin's unpopularity--the result of horrendous media coverage and her role as the McCain campaign's pitbull--is a major political obstacle. Her unfavorable rating hovers around 50%, the point at which most politicians would reach for the Valium.
An October Gallup poll put Ms. Palin's favorable number at 40%, her lowest rating to date. In a November Gallup survey, 63% of all voters said they wouldn't seriously consider supporting her for the presidency.
Yet Ms. Palin isn't as unpopular as John Edwards, and she has a higher approval rating than Nancy Pelosi. As Hillary Clinton's career shows, public perception changes over time. Ms. Palin remains highly popular among Republicans (69% favorable). But the Democrats' striking antipathy to the former governor--she has a 72% unfavorable rating among them--drives down her overall approval.
Independents are a different story. These are the folks who decide presidential elections, and they are divided on Ms. Palin. In last month's Gallup poll, Ms. Palin had a 48% unfavorable and 41% favorable rating among independents. Not good, but not insurmountable. Flip those percentages, and they could be serving moose burgers in the White House in 2013.
What drives independents' uncertainty is their feeling that Ms. Palin isn't up to the job. Independents blanch at her perceived lack of expertise on issues unrelated to energy or abortion. They look at Ms. Palin's disappointing interview with Katie Couric last year, or laugh at Tina Fey's impression on "Saturday Night Live." Her resignation--still not fully explained--stokes their worst fears.
Continetti goes on to outline a strategy that he believes Palin could use to rehabilitate her image. But Palin's reputational problems are more profound than he admits. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, perceptions of Palin's qualifications for the presidency are shockingly low for a former presidential/VP nominee -- there's been no one comparable to her since Dan Quayle. As such, while it may be true that independents are "divided" in their feelings toward Palin (41% favorable, 48% unfavorable), they tilt heavily toward viewing her as unqualified. Continetti doesn't mention any polls on the subject, but a Gallup survey released last week found that only 28% of independents (and 58% of Republicans!) believe Palin is qualified to be president -- significantly lower than the other prominent Republicans included in the survey (Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich). Given how much people already know about her and how much negative attention she draws from Democrats and the press, it's extremely unlikely she will turn around those numbers. In other words, keep the moose burgers on ice.
PS Note to Continetti: It's a bad sign when you have to clarify that Palin is more popular with John Edwards, a man who cheated on his wife while she was battling cancer.
Update 11/18 9:46 AM: This post was cited in a Christian Science Monitor story on Palin's 2012 prospects.
Republicans Are Poised for Gains in Key Elections
Outcomes in New York, New Jersey and Virginia Are Unlikely to Forecast Much About National Races in 2010, History Shows
Republicans appear positioned for strong results in three hard-fought elections Tuesday. But isolated, off-year contests aren't always reliable indicators of what will happen in the wider federal and state races held in even-numbered years.
A Republican sweep in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday shifted the political terrain against President Barack Obama only a year after his historic election.
PS For the record, the WSJ was right the first time. Despite what the press will tell you, a handful of off-year elections don't tell us much about the "political terrain" facing Obama and the Democrats. As Matthew Yglesias points out, we have these things called "polls" that we can use to measure people's political beliefs and opinions. Perhaps we should consider using those instead.
Update 11/4 11:41 AM: Dave notes in comments on my blog that the first story includes a similar passage about the election potentially revealing "much tougher political terrain," which I missed:
A Republican sweep in Tuesday's key contests would at minimum show that Democrats face much tougher political terrain than they did a year ago.
I'm not sure what the passage means (the metaphor of "political terrain" is not well-defined) but it seems to contradict the lede of the story, which states that off-year elections are not reliable indicators. The point remains that the ledes are in tension (if not in direct contradiction).
It's also worth noting note the contradiction between the election "show[ing]... political terrain" (11/3) and the results actually "shift[ing] the political terrain" (11/4). Maybe it's time to retire the metaphor, which lets reporters vaguely suggest that things have changed without specifying how.
To be sure, it's easy to overanalyze the results of such a small number of elections in a few places. The results will only offer hints about the national political landscape and clues to the public's attitudes. And the races certainly won't predict what will happen in the 2010 midterm elections.
To be sure, each race was as much about local issues as about firing warning shots at the politically powerful. But taken together, the results of the 2009 off-year elections could imperil Obama's ambitious legislative agenda and point to a challenging environment in midterm elections next year.
Sarah Palin continues to post gruesome poll numbers for a supposedly serious presidential contender. The latest CNN poll found that only 29 percent of Americans believe she is qualified to be president. That number represents a significant decline from perceptions of her qualifications during the campaign, which were already terrible.
Indeed, perceptions of Palin's qualifications are unprecedented among presidential/vice presidential nominees and major presidential contenders in recent years. From Joe Biden to George W. Bush, no one has been perceived as less qualified since Dan Quayle and Ross Perot. The Palin-Quayle parallel, which Jon Chait nailed soon after her nomination, is particularly striking. Each was a surprise VP pick who sparked initial enthusiasm but later became widely perceived as incompetent.
To illustrate the point, here's a comparison of poll results measuring perceptions of Palin and Quayle's qualifications based on time elapsed since their initial convention speeches*:
Though Quayle served as vice president for four years (and got a small bump in the Gulf War period), he could never overcome the perception that he was not qualified to be president. I expect Palin's trajectory to be very similar.
Update 10/30 1:26 PM: Credit where credit is due -- Phil Klinkner raised the Palin-Quayle parallel back on August 30, 2008, citing a Rasmussen poll.
Update 10/31 10:48 AM: In the post above, I didn't make explicit what happened to Quayle after his tenure as vice president. For those who don't know, he withdrew from the presidential race in 1996 and declined to run in 2000. Though he gave various reasons for his decisions to withdraw, the fundamental problem was his perceived lack of qualification to be president. Palin may run in 2012 or 2016 -- the base likes her much more than it did Quayle -- but she will face the same obstacles that he did in trying to mount a successful campaign.
* The polls that were included used national adult and registered voter samples with binary qualified/not qualified questions.
A national survey by Public Policy Polling found that 48% of Republicans (and 26% of Americans generally) endorsed the unsupported smear that President Obama doesn't love America (27% of Republicans said Obama does love America and 25% were not sure). Those numbers are even worse than the myth that Obama wasn't born in this country, which was endorsed by 42% of Republicans (and 23% of Americans generally) in a September PPP poll.
Update 10/23 2:05 PM: As a point of comparison (per Jinchi's comment on my blog), a Fox News poll in June 2008 asked "How much do you think Barack Obama loves America?" (rather than "Do you think that Barack Obama loves America?"). 27% of Republicans said "a great deal," 34% said "somewhat," 14% said "not much," 12% said "not at all," and 14% said they didn't know. Though the question and response options varied slightly, those responses are substantially more positive than those found by PPP.
Update 10/25 8:42 PM: Per MartyB's comment on my blog, it's worth clarifying that the reason I compared the two posts above. While the two claims obviously differ in terms of the extent to which they can be disproven, both polls demonstrate that Obama is not viewed as a legitimate president by much of the GOP base.
Back on Sept. 9, I predicted that President Obama's speech to Congress on health care was "not likely to change much in terms of public opinion" based on previous political science research. A few days later, I noted weak and inconsistent evidence of an effect (a claim that was disputed by Nate Silver). University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin subsequently weighed in, finding that "Opposition [to health care reform] has grown but is now slowed to a near halt" while "[s]upport reversed its decline sometime in August and has begun an upturn" which was "probably driven by the speech."
To maximize the likelihood of seeing an effect, I've restricted the date range to July 1-October 5 and used the most sensitive trend line estimator. Nonetheless, the effect of the speech on Obama's job approval is minimal -- the graph shows a small upward blip after the speech but the series quickly returned to its previous trajectory. There was a small bounce in support for health care reform after the speech, but part of the effect dissipated. Meanwhile, estimated opposition to reform, which dipped in the wake of the speech, quickly rebounded toward previous levels and is now greater than it was before the speech. When Charlie Rangel said before the speech that "this level of involvement from the president could well be a game-changer," I don't think these were the results he had in mind.
I'm emphasizing this point because there's a misperception among journalists that the president can easily move public opinion. As we've seen again and again over the years, it's simply not true, but the lack of followup by the press means that the lesson is never learned. (At most, a failure to move poll numbers is blamed on some specific aspect of president's message or strategy.) So we repeat the same cycle over and over again.
Josh Tucker (a political scientist at NYU) emails to ask if there are significant regional differences in the data on the state of the GOP brand that I blogged about yesterday.
Tucker, like many other bloggers, was struck by a chart created by Steve Benen highlighting differences a September Daily Kos poll found in views of the Republican Party by region:
As a point of comparison, I checked both the May 1993 Pew poll featured yesterday and a CBS/New York Times poll from late 1994 and there weren't huge regional differences in Republican favorability between the South and the rest of the country. The same applied in a 2006 CBS/NYT poll.
The Pew poll I blogged about yesterday (the Religion & Public Life Survey) isn't available online, but I checked several recent survey questions about the GOP image for which raw data is available in the Roper Center database. The 2009 survey that most closely replicates the Kos question about views of "Republicans in Congress" (a CBS poll) shows a smaller difference between the South and other regions, though it was conducted in March:
In addition, two other surveys asking closely related questions about approval of Republicans in Congress and views of the Republican Party show no obvious divergence between the South and the rest of the country:
One objection is that the CBS and USA Today/Gallup polls took place before the anti-Obama backlash had gotten underway. However, the CNN poll above was conducted July 31-August 3 and shows relatively similar views of the Republican Party by region.
There are important cultural and political differences between the South and the rest of the country, but those differences may be less dramatic than the Kos question suggests. It would be useful if other polls could break out their results by region to see if the Kos finding holds more generally.