Brendan Nyhan | June 25, 2010
Topics: Barack Obama , presidential approval
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."
Update 6/28 7:34 AM: See also Frank Newport at Gallup:
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.