As I’ve mentioned any number of times, you have to be careful about what polls you consider as worthy of believing and what polls are likely not particularly accurate. Jay Cost has a great article about that with the added point that the media doesn’t understand what he tells you and so doesn’t understand the races in the various states.
He points to this from the Hill as an example:
President Obama is retaining his commanding lead over Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania, topping the Republican presidential nominee by 12 points in a poll released Wednesday by Franklin & Marshall College. Obama would win the favor of 48 percent of Keystone State voters, versus just 36 percent for Romney, according to the poll.
1. The president is under 50 percent in most swing state polling averages. It’s not an ironclad rule that Obama cannot rise in the polls, but common sense suggests that it will be tough. He’s been the president for three years – if you’re not inclined to vote for him now, what will five months of a campaign do?
That’s an important point – if you’re the incumbent and polling under 50%, you’re in trouble regardless of the type voter the poll uses. Also note that the Romney candidacy isn’t even official yet. He would likely see a rise in preference once he is officially the GOP candidate.
Another point I’ll expand on later – favorability. Cost says this:
It’s worth noting as well that most of these polls show the president getting roughly his job approval, which is all we should expect him to receive in the general election (maybe a little less). And his job approval rating has consistently been under 50 percent for two-and-a-half years.
Not good. Not insurmountable, but certainly not an indicator of a strong candidate. More on favorability later.
2. Most polls are of registered voters. This matters because the actual electorate will only be a subset of registered voters, and will probably be more inclined to vote for the GOP. So, these polls probably overstate Obama’s “lead,” such as it is.
With a state like Pennsylvania, using registered voters, you most likely get an oversampling of Democrats. Which side is most likely to be motivated this time? The GOP. So the number quoted in the Hill story is probably considerably lower than claimed (remember Wisconsin? A state carried by 14 points in 2008 is now showing 7 points).
3. There is no “blue wall.” This is a common point pundits will make – the list of states that have not voted Republican since 1988 amounts to a “blue wall” for the president. Nonsense. It’s better to say that these states have Democratic tilts, some of them pretty minimal.
We’ve seen evidence of that in landslide elections. There’s no “red wall” either. It’s all about tilts. Some states tilt more than others but all states, at some point, are in play. Think preference cascade.
The states with a Republican tilt of at least 1 point total up to 253 electoral votes, based on the 2008 results. The states with a Democratic tilt of at least 1 percent total up to 257 electoral votes.
In other words, it’s a wash.
And this is key:
4. The “horse race” metaphor has its limits. Take this from the guy who used to write the Horse Race Blog: The concept of a horse race does not capture the idea of voter psychology very well at this point. Roughly 85 percent or so of the electorate is locked in – though they may not be admitting it to pollsters – while the final 15 percent has barely started the decision-making process. So, the idea that Obama has a “lead” in the polls is really a non sequitur. The gettable voters are not yet engaged, so there really is no race going on at the moment
The fight is for the 15% and they’re not even really paying attention yet. My guess is the 15% probably have a preference, but can be swayed. But for the most part, the majority of the electorate is already engaged (and again, this is one reason WI has national implications).
Finally, favorability. Obama supporters like to point to his favorability rating vs. Romney. That’s pretty much useless as Morris Fiorna explains:
Over all, in the 13 elections between 1952 and 2000, Republican candidates won four of the six in which they had higher personal ratings than the Democrats, while Democratic candidates lost four of the seven elections in which they had higher ratings than the Republicans. Not much evidence of a big likability effect here. In most elections, however, the electorate did not give a large personal edge to either candidate. In four elections they did.
So it is a very mixed bag concerning favorability or likeability. The most pertinent recent example:
Jimmy Carter’s 1980 job approval was flirting with lows established by Harry S. Truman, Nixon and later, George W. Bush, but the electorate rated Carter’s personal qualities as the highest of the Democratic candidates between 1952 and 2000. The same electorate rated Ronald Reagan as the lowest of the Republican candidates. The Ronald Reagan of October 1980 was not the Reagan of “morning again in America” in 1984, let alone the beloved focus of national mourning in 2004. Many Americans saw the 1980 Reagan as uninformed, reckless, and given to gaffes and wild claims. But despite their misgivings about Reagan, and their view that Carter was a peach of a guy personally, voters opted against four more years of Carter.
Fiorna sums it up this way:
“Voters didn’t like my personality” is a loser’s excuse.
As the campaigns progress, we’re likely to hear how Obama’s favorability rating is higher than Romney’s and that such a rating is “significant”. Don’t buy into that. It is likely not that significant at all.
In summary, if the candidate is under 50% in a state in which registered voters are polled, he’s not as strong (or weak) as the polling might indicate. If the poll is of registered voters, take it with a grain of salt. All states are in play and the fight is for the uncommitted 15%.
Favorability? Disregard. It’s about job performance. (That said, here’s POLITICO trying to make something of Obama’s favorability rating).
Hopefully this will help you navigate the worth of the umpteen polls you’ll have thrown your way in the next few months. You should be able to quickly get their measure and then just as quickly figure out if the media has any idea of what it is talking about.
Most likely you’ll find they don’t. But then, that shouldn’t particularly surprise you, should it?
Jay Cost at the Real Clear Politics blog takes on the emerging liberal canard about America suddenly becoming “ungovernable”:
Recently, some analysts have suggested that the lack of major policy breakthroughs in the last year is due to the fact that America has become ungovernable. Ezra Klein argued that it was time to reform the filibuster because the government cannot function with it intact anymore. Tom Friedman suggested that America’s “political instability” was making people abroad nervous. And Michael Cohen of Newsweek blamed “obstructionist Republicans,” “spineless Democrats,” and an “incoherent public” for the problem.
Nonsense. America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job.
Cost goes on to lay out, in some pretty good detail why he claims Obama hasn’t been up to the job. And I think he does a pretty thorough job. Be sure to read it all.
He also mentions something in there that I think is lost on the left and sometimes the right. While for many of us, we’ve seen government grow well beyond what we find acceptable or prudent, we actually could be worse off. And one of the reasons we’re not is the inherent design of the system of government we have. The same design many on the left now find frustrating and obstructive.
Let’s acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III’s government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.
The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.
The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind – but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.
The President’s two major initiatives – cap-and-trade and health care – have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That’s a good thing.
So, as Cost points out, governing America is hard. But that’s a feature not a bug. It is intentionally hard because within that system is a means for the minority to be heard. That’s a critical feature. Because of that feature, the majority isn’t able to ram through legislation that isn’t acceptable to a broad base of the voting constituency. Health care reform and cap-and-trade represent legislation that has been found wanting in that regard. So the left, who used it like a Stradivarius when they were in the minority, now want that check eliminated in the Senate (kill the filibuster) and pine for the good old days of elite rule when, they claim, ramming through major legislation was so much easier.
No real surprise there.
Which brings me to Richard Fernandez’s take on this subject. He agrees with 99% of what Cost says, but says there is 1% where he’d differ:
The Left doesn’t want to govern, it wants to rule given the chance. It is as always willing to leave its own Big Tent behind at the decisive moment. The continual calls from the Democrat Left for Obama to ‘grow a spine’ are really coded calls to say that the moment is now; that the President must ‘’seize the day, seize the hour”. It’s not as Cost imagines, a call to compromise. It’s a call to say that the time for compromise is over. They can drop the mask; they can hoist the Jolly Roger.
I think Fernandez is right. Remember “I won” soon after Obama’s assumption of power? That bit of gloating was a moment the mask dropped.
The left would much rather rule than govern. It is certainly easier. And it tends to agree more with their authoritarian bent.
Governing is a messy and hard business in which they must listen and react to constituents. It means they actually are servants to the public. On the other hand, ruling means the elite choose what the constituency should live with since it is believed by them that the elite know best what that should be. Those they represent exist only to justify the presence of their rulers. The only difference between our left wing and that which founded the USSR is ours haven’t ever had the chance to effect the change those in Soviet Russia did. To this point, our system has mostly prevented it. But redistribution of income, more government intrusiveness and more government control are certainly the obvious desired results of most of the left’s agenda.
And, much to the frustration of the left, the system is preventing it again (with the stipulation that the GOP doesn’t find a way to cave and pass the unpopular bills cited above).
I’m not sure what Barack Obama thought he’d be able to do in terms of “ruling” instead of “governing”, but I’m sure that those who supported his “hope and change” agenda weren’t looking for a ruler. However it is clear, per Cost’s article, they’ve not gotten someone who can govern either (back to the leadership problem again). And, somewhat surprisingly, Obama doesn’t seem to understand the situation he’s put himself in as he doubles down on the leftist agenda he’s allowed liberal Congressional Democrats to craft. He, like so many deluded politicians, is convinced the problem with lack of popular support for the agenda is to be found with the message’s delivery, not with the message itself.
Cost concludes with an answer that I think fairly well destroys the “ungovernable” canard:
This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.
America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.
Here’s to further frustration to the left and their agenda by the “ungovernable” among us.
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Although Obamacare is still pretty unfavorable to most Americans (and getting worse?), for some reason a nebulous “public option” continues to poll rather well. Jay Cost takes a look at the polling data and offers a reasonable suggestion for the disparity:
How can we reconcile these gloomy numbers with the sunny results on the public option?
It might be due to the public’s lack of information. I’m sure that the average polling respondent is paying some attention to the health care debate, but she is paying much less attention than political junkies. This will limit the amount of information she actually has in her mental filing cabinet. So, the crucial question is: even if she has absorbed some pro- and anti-reform arguments, does she have enough information to relate them to specific reform proposals? Color me skeptical on that one. I think your average respondent – even with some general opinions on reform – will have a hard time using those broad considerations to evaluate items like the individual mandate, guaranteed issue, community rating, and…wait for it!…the public option.
So, asking about specific proposals might be taking the conversation too far into the woods for the average respondent – and she is going to have a hard time recalling a relevant piece of information upon which to base a response. Instead, she might use the question itself as a basis for her answer. It follows that the information or perspective given in the question could make her more or less partial to the proposal under consideration.
I made a similar argument back in August when dissecting a report alleging that there is 80% support for the public option. Among other problems with supposed poll, it was not at all clear that respondents even new what was meant by “public option”:
If in fact the question was worded as described by Singer, then the inclusion of the phrase “if they can’t afford private plans offered to them” alters the results dramatically. Although some have suggested that this is the reason we need health care insurance reform so desperately, it completely ignores the fact that those who can’t afford health insurance are generally covered by Medicaid, SCHIP and other federal and state programs. So when respondents are asked whether such people should be covered, how do we know they aren’t thinking about those federal and state programs already in existence and not the public option as proposed by Obama and Congress? In short, we don’t. To be fair, the question allegedly refers to “starting a new” program, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people understood the question to be asking about ObamaCare’s public option.
Indeed, according to PSB, “only 37 percent define ‘public option’ correctly” and “about one-fourth of those polled believe the ‘public option’ is a national health care system, similar to the one in Great Britain.” Of course, how to “correctly” define the public option is not revealed, but suffice it to say that the survey’s respondents did not reveal they had a concise grasp upon what a public option actually means.
The fact is that most people have better things to do with their lives than become expert in the sausage-making going on in D.C. That they are rationally ignorant (and, thanks to the MSM, often completely misinformed) of the details regarding the public option should come as no surprise.
But Cost digs much deeper and finds that the wording of the survey questions makes a dramatic difference. He points out that most of the recent polling uses “feel-good-phraseology” that tends to diminish the concept of government control and assume the idea that the public option would “compete” with private insurers:
If the theory that question wording is playing a role is correct, then altering the wording should induce a change in the results. So, what happens when information less partial to the Democratic side is introduced? To start answering this question, let’s consider the Gallup results, which are decidedly less bullish on the public option:
Like ABC News/WaPo, Gallup uses the Democratic buzzword “compete.” However, Gallup also uses a Republican buzzword: “government-run.” This is opposed to the weaker formulation – “government administered” – offered by CBS News/New York Times and CNN. With this more balanced choice of words, Gallup finds a roughly even split. I would not call this definitive evidence, but it suggests that we might be on the right track.
More damning is the result of a Rasmussen poll where the wording is less “feel-good” and the public option question is followed up with this one:
Suppose that the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers. Workers would then be covered by the government option. Would you favor or oppose the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option if it encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers?
What happens when this Republican argument is substituted for the Democratic argument? Support for the public option plummets dramatically. Nearly 3/5ths of all respondents voiced opposition to the public option when it was phrased in this way.
Additionally, Rasmussen asked whether respondents thought the public option would save taxpayers money (they didn’t), whether they thought it would offer better health insurance than private insurance (again, no), and whether people preferred to have a public option or a guarantee that nobody will lose their current coverage (the guarantee won in a landslide).
As Cost admits, none of this means that people are necessarily against the public option, just that their opinions are highly influenced by the way questions are asked, stemming from the fact that they are relatively uninformed about the topic. However, Cost’s theory would explain why there is such incongruity between the public’s distaste for the ObamaCare plans floating around Congress and their seeming desire for a public option. Interestingly enough, it also explains why “Medicare for all” is the new rallying cry coming from Washington.
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