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Gallup vs. Gibbs: Coverage of Trackers Provides Window for Criticism

Topics: Barack Obama , Daily Trackers , Frank Newport , Gallup , Gallup Daily , Interpreting polls , Robert Gibbs

As Mark noted in his Outliers post, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attacked the use of Gallup's daily tracking data today, quipping that "if I was a heart patient and Gallup was my EKG, I'd visit my doctor."

Gallup's Frank Newport responded head-on, defending the value of his own polling data by responding that "...the doctor might ask him what's going on in his life that would cause his EKG to be fluctuating so much," while suggesting that the White House was using Gallup as a convenient scapegoat for President Obama's falling poll ratings.

Newport has a point - our own job approval chart now shows Obama's approval rating less then 2% above his disapproval (although as always the "nose" of our trend line is somewhat unstable). To say that Obama's dropping poll data is "meaningless" is to avoid the substance of the question.

However, Newport's response glosses over the fact that daily tracking data, while not necessarily problematic on its own, can be somewhat erratic and susceptible to sensationalistic interpretation. Take the release Gibbs was asked to respond to as an example: it represented the second time in less than three weeks that Gallup marked drops in Obama's approval with special articles posted to Gallup.com (and sent via blast email to media outlets) separate from their typical daily update, while another special release by Gallup on November 24th featured Obama reaching a new low among whites.

All of this may hold some significance as a trend over time, which is just what daily tracking data allows us to observe. However, sampling error makes it difficult to know when a downturn in approval on any given day is random noise and when it marks a significant trend for the president to worry about. Releases to mark every low the tracker hits, while ignoring commensurate upticks (note that Obama's approval was back up to 50% in today's Gallup Daily poll) result in lopsided news coverage that can weaken the public image of polling itself and make it an easy scapegoat for those, like Gibbs, who may be unhappy with the general trend in the data.

Gibbs' attack on polling data may indeed have been a convenient excuse for Obama's dropping poll numbers, but Gallup sets itself up for criticism by overemphasizing daily noise and provides Gibbs with an opportunity to avoid dealing with the substance of the issue and assail sensationalistic media coverage instead.

 

Comments
mk3872:

Thank you, Emily, terrific interpretation!

I found it most interesting that Newport failed to comment on the fact that Gallup seems to relish their role as feeder of Drudge bait by blasting out TWEETS and reports on Gallup.com every time Obama drops to a new low on a daily tracker.

Shouldn't we hold Gallup to the standard which they claim to achieve by also reporting upticks and positive short-terms trends?

Or at least not report every single dip when it makes them look foolish since a few days after first falling below 50%, they put him @ 52% on Sunday and then 1 day after 47%, he's back up to 50%.

So where are the stories and email blasts saying that he's back into positive territory?

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sfcpoll:

Very nice debut analysis (think it's the first)- hope to see more!

I suppose the proper analogy for Gibbs would be a doctor who interpreted every line on an EKG machine as a possible trend, possibly missing the big picture.

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Alan Abramowitz:

Excellent post. Gallup is trying to have it both ways--objecting to criticism of the day-to-day fluctuations in its tracking poll while selectively playing up daily results to generate press coverage.

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Farleftandproud:

I think that Obama's press secretary would go insane if he even looked at the polls. For an Obama fan, it is terrifying to look at the recent polls. It is clearly a sign that the right wingers are far better at being obstructionists and devisive when the opposing party is in the white house. When we get a Republican in the White house, maybe we should heckle the president, maybe we should have tea parties, maybe we should go to a town hall meeting, and attack Evangelical Christianity just like the race haters ripped up the photo of Rosa Parks. Lets make sure that under all circumstances we go out of our way to do this weekly.

When I see how the GOP is behaving since Obama's election, I think progressives went way too easy on Bush. What comes around goes around.

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GARY WAGNER:

"When I see how the GOP is behaving since Obama's election, I think progressives went way too easy on Bush. "

What planet have you been living on for the past 9 years? Progressives went absolutely insane in their attacks on Bush. The GOP hasn't even had to attack Obama - his poll slide is all self inflicted. Had he kept the power and not delegated it all to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, you might see him with an approval rating above 50% right now.

The progressives have 90% of the media in their back pocket. If they can't keep Obama's poll numbers up with that big of an advantage, there's huge trouble brewing for democrats in 2010 and probably 2012 as well.

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