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David C. Wilson Headshot

What's the Real Story behind Obama's Poll Numbers? They're all Relative.

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It's amazing how many spurious headlines come out about the President's poll numbers. With all the negativity around the job approval ratings one might assume that the President is among the worst politicians around these days.

Media figure heads and writers rarely put these numbers in any meaningful context other than a trend, which could be a month ago, a year ago, since he took office, or whatever works for the story. Most of the time the changes in the president's job approval numbers are not outside of the margin of error. Here's a quick tutorial, if the margin of error is +-4% then showing a 3% decline suggests no change. Also, remember the error is plus or minus both the new number and the old one.

More curiously, many of the attention grabbing headlines are negatively framed. That is, we see headlines when there is a 2-3% drop, but not when there are similar marginal gains.

So, I thought I'd take a moment to present an alternative analysis of the polls. Reading the data is both an art and a science, and shallow headlines can give polling a bad reputation.

Polls are not an inherently bad political phenomenon. When done properly they can be useful tools to enhance democracy. But when pollsters and media producers misinterpret the patterns and meanings within the data it raises serious questions about both their skill sets and their desired narratives. To use a bad example often expressed by gun rights advocates, "polls don't kill politics, the inexperienced users of polls kill politics."

There are three important questions that one can and should ask about the polls we've seen over the past 21 months since the president took office. Each question helps give some comparative context to nature of the political climate for the President.

First, who beats the President in head-to-head match ups for his leadership post? Second, among the nation's leaders--ignore those who have no elective governing responsibilities--who has higher job approval and favorability ratings than the president right now? Third, are there any positive trends that suggest things aren't horribly bad?

First, let's look at early viability ("can he still win?") measures. One indication that the President still has political legs can be seen in this year's head-to-head match-ups with other candidates. Pollingreport.com tracks horse race questions for potential 2012 candidates.

See Pollingreport.com's numbers: http://www.pollingreport.com/2012.htm

Among the various topline reports, one finds that President Obama consistently wins match-ups versus Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, and even a hypothetical "Tea Party Candidate." While some of the margins between Obama and potential candidates have decreased since he took office, there are no horse races where the President loses. In addition, no other Democrat is within 50% points of Obama.

This all suggests that while the public has issues with Obama as leader, they are not convinced there is someone who would do better.

Moving to job approval and favorability, it helps to use more consistent data. Since the AP-Gfk poll does monthly tracking (1,000+ U.S. adults) on the president and other public attitudes let's take a look at some of their numbers.

See the AP-Gfk poll results here: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com/pdf/AP-GfK%20Poll%20September%20Topline%2009.15.10%20final%20FULL.pdf

According to AP-Gfk's poll results, President Obama's approval rating for September of this year is 49%. The approval rating for "Congress" is 26%; for "Democrats in Congress" it's 38%; and for "Republicans in Congress" it's 31%. It's true the President's numbers have decreased more than either political party's; however, after contentious battles on health care, financial reform, economic legislation, Supreme Court nominees, immigration bills, military strategy, taxes, and the Gulf Spill, the President still wins the job approval comparison.

Some think Bill Clinton was the teflon president, but over less than two years Obama has weathered far more storms, during a much more difficult period in the country's history and still sits pretty well in the eyes of the public.

Turning to favorability, the President's September rating is 57%. Compare this with a 45% favorability rating for Republicans. Sarah Palin's favorability is at 38%, 6% points lower than former President George W. Bush (44%). Democrats hold a 48% favorability rating, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's rating is at 33%. And, according to pollingreport.com the favorability trends for Republican figures Romney, Gingrich, and Huckabee also fall short.

Romney's Ratings: http://www.pollingreport.com/r.htm#Romney

Gingrich's Ratings: http://www.pollingreport.com/g.htm#Gingrich

Huckebee's Ratings: http://www.pollingreport.com/h-j.htm#Huckabee

AP-Gfk does not asses Republican Minority Leader John Boehner; but, according to an April 2009 FOX News Poll of 900 registered voters, Boehner is largely unknown (55% never heard of him). Still, the FOX News Polls reports his favorability at 12%. Oddly, a Gallup Poll of 1,033 U.S. adults, conducted a month earler, reported Boehner having a 29% favorability rating, and only 26% had never heard of him.

Overall, the President registers higher job approval and favorability ratings than other national leaders. I'm actually still looking for any prominent national leader--elected by the public--who rates higher than Obama in the same poll. I'm sure it's out there, I just haven't seen it. (hint hint...for media commentators...)

That said, the AP-Gfk poll shows Michelle Obama (68%) and Hillary Clinton (62%) both have higher favorability ratings than the President, suggesting he does not reign as most favorable among the Washington politicos. Then again, neither Michelle Obama nor Hillary Clinton has elective responsibilities.

Keeping with the theme of presidential performance, we can also compare some numbers about the economy. On handling the economy, 42% approve of the President's performance, while Democrat's and Republican's have ratings of 39% and 34% respectively. These are all low numbers but it's all relative.

In terms of blame for the recession, 26% say President Obama shares "a lot" or "quite a bit" of blame, compared George W. Bush's 51%, the Democrat's 40%, and the Republican's 38%. Accurately, the public perceives financial institutions, the federal government's regulators, and people's bad decisions are mostly to blame: "the banks and lenders that made risky loans" (82%), "the people who borrowed money that they could not afford to repay" (67%), and "the federal government for failing to regulate banks closely enough" (67%).

Finally, are there any noteworthy poll results that are positive and might provide some additional context on the state of the union?

Well, since July 2009, the percent of people saying they are either "somewhat happy" or "very happy" has not gone below 75%. And, the percent of people saying they are "very happy" (39%) is now at its highest level since the trend started in the summer of 2009. In fact, it's up 9% points since August of this year. That's meaningful change, right?

In October of 2008, the AP-Gfk poll showed that 17% of the public felt the country was headed in the right direction. By September 2009, the number was at 37%. This month (September 2010), that number is at 40%, 5% points up from the previous month. In fact, there is a significant linear trend upward in the percentage saying "right direction" and a corresponding downward trend in the percentage saying "wrong direction." This too is meaningful change, right?

In summary, a headline could read, "President's Poll Numbers hit all-time Low," or it could read, "President's Poll Numbers Continue to Stay above Other National Leaders." Hearing that a team scored only one touchdown is bad, until you find out that no one else scored at all in any other games. Right now, almost everyone is doing poorly in the polls; let's not highlight only the President.

I know many public poll readers might find it mutinous to report positive data from polls, but the fact that there is a consensus that Americans are more happy than unhappy (i.e., subjective well being is good), and that the direction of the contry is improving are worth noting. In other words, the media can play a role in improving things in this country too, just look for the silver linings in the data....too.

I'm not acting as general counsel for the President, I'm just trying to help the public understand that interpreting poll numbers is not always as straightforward as some would have us think.

Everything is relative.

UPDATE: Since CNN's headlines about President Obama's approval ratings being at an all-time low of 42%, the following numbers are have been reported (see below). I was waiting on the headlines reporting a bounce, but alas, no luck. Turns out the 42% might have been more random error than previously thought, OR the President is experiencing a BOUNCE.

Pollster Dates N/Pop Approve Disapprove
Rasmussen 9/25-27/10 1500 LV 50% 49%
Gallup 9/25-27/10 1500 A 45% 49%
Zogby (Internet) 9/24-27/10 2068 LV 45% 54%
Rasmussen 9/22-24/10 1500 LV 45% 54%
Gallup 9/22-24/10 1500 A 44% 48%
CNN 9/21-23/10 1010 A 42% 54%

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