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Wilson: Toplines and Headlines- Misreading Public Sentiment about the Economy

Topics: CNN , Economy , Interpreting polls , Measurement

David C. Wilson is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, who previously served as a Senior Statistical Consultant for The Gallup Organization in Washington, D.C.

In this edition of "Toplines and Headlines," (previous notes can be found at the CPC blog) I examine headlines and data from a recent poll about the economy. The poll was sponsored by CNN, and conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC). The headline from the story on CNN's website read, "CNN Poll: Optimism on economy fading." The headline implies that positive beliefs about the economy are actually on the decline, and that readers should be concerned. Yet, after reading the Topline results provided by CNN, a sophisticated reader of polls might (and probably should) come to the exact opposite conclusion as CNN.

CNN's polling director, Keating Holland, supports the headline citing data that suggest "Americans don't see economic conditions getting better any time soon," and notes that 34% of respondents say that things are "going well in the country today," a 14% increase from a year ago, BUT a 3% point decrease since November. Holland also cites a 6% increase, from 33% to 39%, in the percentage of people who say the country is still in a downturn. These Toplines form the initial thrust of the support for the "negative" headline.

Yet, this narrative should be questioned just on a couple of simple survey methodological factors. The margin of error (MOE) for the poll is plus or minus 3%, which means the aforementioned percentage decline in things "going well in the country today" is within the margin of error; thus, since last year, while more people see things going well, statistically, those numbers have not changed since last month. This counters CNN's headline.

More questions about the negative headline are raised when one examines the entire trend (p. 7 of the Topline release) since November of 2008; at that time, the percent saying things in the country are going well was 16%. In every poll since that date, except last month, the trend increased. Thus, it's very possible, and quite likely, that the results from November were a random (larger than expected) bump in the trend. In reality, the percentage thinking things are going well is actually continuing to increase rather than decline; another counter to the headline.

Turning to another question ostensibly supporting the headline, the trend showing an increasing percentage of those who say "the country is still in a downturn" is important, but the results from that particular question do not necessarily describe the fading optimism cited in the headline (see p. 7 of the Topline release). In fact, since June, 60% or more of Americans believe the economy is either "recovering" or "stabilized and is not getting any worse." This trend may have gone DOWN 6% since October, but has gone virtually unchanged since June.

In the CNN story, Holland also notes that 43% say the "chances of the recession turning into another Great Depression" are either somewhat or very likely (see p. 7 of the release). Yet, strong majorities in 2009--58% in the Dec. poll, 58% in a July-Aug poll, and 54% in a March poll--believe this is less likely to happen. Moreover, it's true the trend is up 5% from a year ago, but if one examines the entire trend, the Dec. 2008 poll cited by Holland appears to be another blip in the trend (see the Topline data for yourself).

On another question, 84% say the economy is still in a recession, but since May of this year that trend has decreased by 6%, while those believing the country is "not" in a recession has increased 6%, from 10% to 16%, over the same period. Thus, while there's broad agreement the American economy is in a recession, that agreement is actually decreasing, rather than increasing.

Lastly, Holland connects his interpretation of the pessimism about the economy to President Obama. He says, "it's clear why Obama is again addressing the economy," noting that "most Americans (40%) continue to say that the economy is the most important issue for them. Yet, one need only examine the trend in this question (p. 2 of the Topline release) to become skeptical of the narrative.

Since March of this year, the percentage saying the economy is the "most important issue facing the country today" has DECREASED by a whopping 23%, while the percentage saying "the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" has INCREASED by 10%. Even Health care has a significant increase since March (the 3% decline since Aug. is within the margin of error). Thus, while the economy is the most important problem, it's been losing steam since March of this year.

When reading the headline and the story in concert with the data, it becomes clear that there is a narrative that CNN, Holland, or both CNN and Holland are trying to promote. At some points the story ignores the overall trend, and at others it mentions only the snapshot point estimates, dismissing the trend completely. In other words, the "trends" (i.e., "fading") that the story and headline emphasize are selective, not comprehensive, and thus in many ways the story is an overly biased take on things.

The point to remember here is that the reader of polls, and "headline," that emphasize trends must be considerate of the starting date of the trend, as well as the other responses not mentioned in a story/narrative. Bottom line, while the CNN headline reads that hopes are fading, a sophisticated poll watcher might easily disagree.

 

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