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"Obama Fatigue" Is A Pew Construct

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According to Pew's Andrew Kohut, the American electorate is suffering from "Obama fatigue." He came to this startling 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."

Trying to interpret all of the many polls into a grand narrative of what the public is thinking is no easy task. Not only do polls conflict, many give at best ambiguous meanings, thus leaving the interpreter great leeway in determining what the people are "really" saying. Quite often, much of the interpreter's own views get entangled in that determination, leading to more of a fictional, than factual, report. That's what I think happened in this case.

First is the problem 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 Kohut would treat such a trend as definitive is stunning. Given the sample sizes, and Kohut certainly knows this, those differences in the polls are well 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.

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 show not a linear change over three months, but fluctuations that defy any meaningful 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 reason why Kohut's analysis seems more fictive that factual is the almost indecipherable meaning that is elicited by the question that was used to suggest Obama fatigue. The poll question 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.

Perhaps the important question is whether people's dissatisfaction with media coverage changed over the time period. Did they become more dissatisfied from June to August, and that increased dissatisfaction caused 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 with media coverage to Obama's alleged declining support. It's apparently just Kohut's intuitive conclusion.

An alternative plausible 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 appear to be more focused on Obama in this particular poll, because the question was asked during a time when, in fact, 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 the cause of a "tightening race" - a spurious explanation of a non-event.