THE BLOG

Lost in the Tweets

05/05/2010 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Blumenthal Mark Blumenthal is the Head of Election Polling at SurveyMonkey.

This morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs passed along a link for his "poll obsessed" Twitter followers pointing to a possibly overlooked "health care bump." The chatter that followed is interesting for what it says about how we cover polls and politics, but more intriguing is why so many missed the underlying polling trend.

It started with a post yesterday on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire (and also echoed on Twitter) with the headline "Health Care Bump at Last?":

Tucked away in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll is some possible evidence for the elusive "health care bump," the rise in poll numbers that Democratic leadership promised would result from the passage of the health care reform legislation.

Among independents, President Obama's approval rating is 48% approve to 39% disapprove, up from 44% each in February, before health care was passed. On the specific subject of health care, independents continue to disapprove of Obama 40% to 45%, but that is a marked improvement over February when 31% approved and 60% disapproved.

Among those noticing was Politico's ubiquitous Mike Allen who quoted extensively from Goddard's item in his morning "Playbook" under the heading "WHAT THE WEST WING IS READING."

A few hours later, White House Press Secretary confirmed the heading with a polling "tweet" for the ages:

For the polling obsessed (meaning all those in Washington)...http://bit.ly/dbZGYL

Needless to say, the link points to Goddard's original "bump at last" item. Among those taking notice of Gibbs' comment was Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Laura Meckler, who wondered aloud whether Gibbs shared the polling obsession, or in Twitter-ese:

Does that include @PressSec? // RT @PressSec For the polling obsessed (meaning all those in Washington) http://bit.ly/dbZGYL

GQ's Ana Marie Cox quickly retweeted an answer: "YES."

At Pollster.com we are certainly grateful for the truth in all of this: Most of us who follow politics in Washington -- including the President's political staff -- are poll obsessed. But I was curious about the underlying numbers. Is there a hidden health care bump?

To his credit, Goddard identified a difference that was large enough to attain statistical significance despite the smaller sample sizes for the independent subgroup.

The story gets a little more nuanced when we consider the trend line among independents for the many surveys conducted (about a third in partnership with the New York Times) since last summer. Among independents, approval of Obama's health care performance bottomed out in February and have improved since, with the biggest jump coming on the most recent survey.

2010-05-05-cbs-indys-on-obama-hc.jpg

So there is an improvement among independents. Was this result buried in the overall results? Not really. While the trend lines are a little more jagged in March (owing partly to a panel-back survey that reinterviewed respondents just after the final House vote), Obama's overall approval on health care on the most recent survey represents a significant improvement since early February.

2010-05-05-cbs-all-on-hcr.jpg

And it wasn't just the polls fielded by CBS News and the New York Times. Our chart aggregating all public polls shows the same modest improvement in Obama's health care reform approval rating: approval is up roughly four percentage points and disapproval down roughly five since mid-January.

2010-05-03-all-polls-hcr.png

That said, the usual warnings about causation and correlation apply. As occasional Pollster contributor Brendan Nyhan pointed out earlier this morning, also via Twitter:

.@pwire suggests Obama "health care bump" http://bit.ly/dbZGYL but upturn likely result of improved econ. perceptions http://bit.ly/b3WLPz

But back to the main point. Yes, we are all poll obsessed. And within the (now) Twitter fueled echo chamber that is Washington, that obsession can get a little silly sometimes. Yet despite our collective best efforts to find that hidden nugget of news buried in the cross-tabulations, we sometimes miss trends that have evident in the overall results of every public poll for weeks.