Articles and Analysis


The Myth of "Obama Fatigue"

According to Pew's Andrew Kohut, the American electorate is suffering from "Obama fatigue." A close examination of the polling data suggests this conclusion is more of a personal opinion than one supported by the polling data.


Kohut came to his conclusion after first noting that the latest Pew Research Center poll in early August found Barack Obama's lead over John McCain "withering." He then noted that the same poll found more people saying they had been hearing "too much" about Obama's campaign than said that about McCain's campaign. Linking the two findings, Kohut concluded that Obama's greater news exposure over the summer "has proved a problem, not a blessing, for the Democratic candidate."


There are a couple of problems of data interpretation. First is the assertion of what Kohut calls a "tightening race." Pew conducted three polls - one each in June, July and August - and in those polls found Obama's lead going from eight points in June (48 percent to 40 percent), to five points in July (47 percent to 42 percent) and to just three points in early August (46 percent to 43 percent). Thus, overall, Obama's support dropped two percentage points over the summer, while McCain's increased by three. That such minor differences in the polls should be treated as a definitive trend is stunning. Even with larger-than-average sample sizes, those differences in the polls are within the polls' margins of error. In other words, even according to these polls, it's quite possible that there was no decline in Obama's lead, and perhaps even an increase. We just can't know for sure (using the 95 percent confidence level).


There are many other polls besides Pew that are measuring the candidates' support, but only one major media organization has conducted polls on a daily basis over this same time period. Gallup has been interviewing about 1,000 respondents each day, reporting the results on a three-day rolling average. If anyone wants to know how the campaign has changed over time, Gallup provides the best set of results. And these results do not show a linear change over the time period described by Kohut, but rather many fluctuations that defy any clear trend.


On June 10, Gallup reported a 6-point Obama lead, which disappeared by June 25. The lead went back to as high as six points in early July, down to one point in mid-July, up to nine points in late July, then down to zero only five days later. The lead was back up to six points on August 12, but down to one point on August 21. One can "discover" a linear three-month trend only by cherry-picking Gallup's results - but the cherry-picked trend could just as easily show an increase as a decline. In any case, the notion that "Obama fatigue" could explain all of these variations is simply not credible.


A second problem with data interpretation is the almost indecipherable meaning that is elicited by the question that was used to suggest Obama fatigue. The poll question Kohut cited asked whether people felt they had been hearing "too much, too little, or the right amount" about each of the campaigns. Forty-eight percent said too much about Obama's campaign, 26 percent about McCain. To be sure, that's a major gap, but what does it mean? If it means people are unhappy with hearing about Obama, and that is related to their "declining" support for him, how could Pew have found Obama's support dropping by only two percentage points, given the 22-point gap in the "fatigue" question? If that sentiment truly affected voters' support of Obama, one would expect a much greater drop.


More important, we know that the crucial question to explain change in support is whether the explanatory variable also shows change over the same time period. Did people become more dissatisfied from June to August with media coverage of Obama's campaign and, if so, did that increased dissatisfaction in turn cause their support to "wither"? As it turns out, Pew didn't ask that question back in June, so we don't know. Thus, statistically, we can't link dissatisfaction in the August poll with the change in support from June to August. The assertion of "Obama fatigue" is not a statistical conclusion, but an intuitive one.


An alternative intuitive explanation of what this question measured is that many voters may well be tired of a presidential campaign that goes on for 18 months or more - in other words, not "Obama fatigue" as much as "campaign fatigue." Dissatisfaction may have appeared to be more focused on Obama in this particular poll, because the question was asked during a time when there was more media coverage of Obama for his overseas trip. Had the question been asked at a different time, or had the pollsters tried to probe beneath the surface of this superficial question, we might have obtained a better insight into what the public was thinking.


Instead, we are treated to the fiction of "Obama fatigue" as a cause of a "tightening race"  - a spurious explanation of a non-event.


(A slightly different version of this critique was posted at HuffingtonPost.)




Excellent deconstruction.

Another possible explanation of the "48 %" is what I'd call my own "Obama fatigue":

I'm simply fed up with hearing the MSM repeating the same stories and myths over and over, and sick of getting the same silly GOPads again and again. I'd like to hear more from and less about Obama.


Gary Kilbride:

I'm sorry, but it always boggles my mind that we thrill to scrutinize every ridiculous crumb of recency. Yet the foundational situational influences are all but ignored, perhaps a column or two in the final days.

Obama fatigue. Okay, swell. Who brainstormed that one? I don't want him checking my transmission.

My secret wish is the nation could vote every single day for months. And the results not revealed until the end. I'd love to wager the daily tallies would barely budge, particularly in a situation like this with the party in power stuck at 30% presidential approval rating for 3 years.



The "Obama fatigue" question could have been a result of people annoyed with the media repeating the same info over and over such as when cable news put that Reverend Wright clip on a repeating loop so it was possible to see it 20 times a day. People wanted real news and were sick of the smear campaigns.



I love Obama but I'm a little sick of him too. I guess not really of him but the media's coverage of him.



re: "sick of" Obama vs. sick of media coverage of Obama

What's the difference? Unless you are interacting with him personally it is all representation.

Kohut said "A second factor appears to be Obama fatigue." Obviously its his opinion based on his interpretation of the numbers. Not sure what Moore is getting so worked up about. This is pretty silly:

"Dissatisfaction may have appeared to be more focused on Obama in this particular poll, because the question was asked during a time when there was more media coverage of Obama for his overseas trip. Had the question been asked at a different time, or had the pollsters tried to probe beneath the surface of this superficial question, we might have obtained a better insight into what the public was thinking."

Shorter Moore: If the pollsters had asked the question at a different time, under different circumstances, and interpreted the data differently, they would have gotten a different answer. Um, okay....



I have fatigue of hearing about the "historic" thing.

I get it. It was historic when he giving a keynote in '04, it was historic when he decided to run, it was historic when he was still in the running, it was historic when he won, it was historic when she quit, it was historic when she endorsed, it was historic when he got the acclimation, it will be historic tonight, it will be historic when he leads, it will be historic when he is inaugurated, ad nauseum.

I get it. He's black, he's going to be president, the more the media focuses on that (and the Obama people encourage it by scheduling the convention on the MLK thing), the more this is going to be about race. Someone should apologize to Geraldine Ferraro.


Joseph Marshall:

I think there is something important to be added by scrutinizing the trendlines on this website. These are also longitudinal and, while they will reflect whatever the limits may be of the Franklin/Blumenthal methodology, they are consistently applied to both candidates across time.

What these show is a near sine wave of Obama support bouncing between about 45 to 48 percentage points. They also show first a slow and then a sharp drop in McCain support from a high of about 45 points to a flatline around 42 points. In the past couple of weeks both Obama's and McCain's support has risen with McCain now just under the 45 point threshold and Obama headed back toward 48 points.

This is clearly inconsistent with any explanation of "Obama fatigue" and it does not mesh very well with the narrative that Obama's support is being eroded or "withered" by the McCain attack ads.

Obama's support has actually stayed quite steady with peaks occuring during periods of favorable news coverage, like his foreign policy trip or the start of the DNC convention, and valleys occurring at times such as his Hawaii vacation when he is not making much news.

McCain's support, however, has risen sharply with the change in campaign staff and the attack ads. This suggests that the ads themselves have had their major impact on the "strongly leaning Republican" independents and perhaps among the "values voters" of the base who have generally been lukewarm toward him up to now.

If this is correct, the race has certainly tightened, but McCain has a far longer way to go than most pundits will admit.

If the attack ads are largely impacting the Republican base and the lean Republican middle the voting gains will clearly be larger in those states McCain will almost certainly win in November and these gains will have nowhere near the impact on the EC totals that he needs to win the election.

Franklin/Blumenthal's apportionment of the EC votes reflect this almost perfectly. For all the "tightening", Obamas totals have dropped only slightly below the 270 needed to win and McCain has gained none.

McCain's campaign will need to create a massive shift of support away from Obama in the national totals to achieve victory. Since the ads have gotten just about as nasty as can be [and there is not much nastier than being beaten over the head with Hillary Clinton], if they have no more impact than they have shown so far, this massive shift will not occur.



While I agree with the analysis, I am not sure that the McCain ads are "nasty". Nasty are the swiftboats, maybe some of the Ayers ads (which Obama is defending here in PA more than the original ad pops up, so most people get the Ayers discussion from Obama).

The republicans had been running ads showing what Hillary and Biden said about Obama in the past, just to contrast with the fake show of unity at the convention. That's fairly standard practice on both sides, especially if McCain picks Romney


Nick Panagakis:

Very well said David.

One more point. Although hearing too much/not enough sound like independent questions about each of the candidates, they are not. Hearing too much begs the question, relative to what. I think it meant relative to other guy; i.e., John McCain. This does not mean Obama fatigue. It could mean a perception of not enough coverage of John McCain.

The day before this final night of the Democratic convention, a period of Obama coverage all of the time which is understandable, Gallup shows Obama now up by 6 points in the Gallup 3-day rilling polls. Where did the fatigue go?




Bravo Joseph Marshall!

I suspect that McCain's two-week micro-surge was the result of Obama's doing the political rope-a-dope while traveling and vacationing.

If the Paris Hilton ad--images of vast, enthusiastic crowds, two white girls, three phallic symbols (Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa (?), and Washingtom Monument) and an African-American man in the middle of it all--is the best McCain's handlers can do, it's pretty sad.

Maybe Rove will think of something, like a push-poll caller asking undecideds how they would feel if they knew Barack had two black children.


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