Why Polls are for Nerds… Usually.

OK, Point 1 on why polls are for nerds, at least usually: it’s the day after Thanksgiving, I read a Washington Post blog article on some recent polling from the Tarrance Group for Politico and George Washington University that I think has limited usefulness at best, and I proceed to start writing about it immediately. That’s nerdy.

But while there is much we can learn from public opinion polls, especially in politics, it’s important to keep them in perspective — particularly the perspective of media framing and institutional norms of journalism that are usually all but allergic to a long view.

OK, first of all, here’s the take from Blake and Cillizza:

It’s been a few months now since President Obama started talking tougher with Republicans in Congress.

And in the aftermath of the debt-reduction “supercommittee” and its failure to come to an agreement on Monday, it’s worth asking the questions: is this new, Truman-esque tactic actually working?

In policy terms: not yet. And politically, it’s not looking great either.

Republicans say its backfiring, and they’ve got some ammo.

George Washington University/Politico Battleground poll released last week showed one particular area of movement for Obama. Since May, the number of people who approved of Obama’s ability to deal with Congress has dropped from 49 percent to 38 percent. And while just 44 percent disapproved of his dealings with Congress six months ago, that number has since risen to 58 percent.

On every other issue, Obama’s approval and disapproval stayed in about the same territory over that span, which leads Republicans to suggest Obama’s efforts to rail against the do-nothing Congress aren’t working.

The post goes on to point out that other polls show that perceptions of Obama as a “strong leader” are slipping, even as Republicans are still receiving greater blame for the failure of the Congressional budget deficit supercommittee.

Now, there’s some important things to learn here. The Politico/GWU poll, in particular, is measuring attitudes in battleground states for the 2012 election, the places where the national decision next year will hinge. The polls reflect a prevailing national mood of dissatisfaction with Washington, and the real challenges Obama, his Republican opponents, and his Democratic allies in Congress face.

But let’s get real: This is November, and specifically the launch of the holiday season. The presidential primaries and caucuses don’t start for over a month, and that month involves Christmas celebrations far more than widespread public ruminations over politics for the vast majority of Americans. In a presidential election season, a month or two can be an eternity. Lots can and will happen. And most people aren’t paying close attention to the election campaign anyway (the Denizens and their loyal readers excepted, of course).

What’s more important here is a teachable moment about public opinions polls and how they fold into contemporary news norms. Media scholar Todd Gitlin has quoted famed investigative reporter Jack Newfield who described journalists as “stenographers with amnesia.” In their focus on providing audiences with what’s happening now, they have a tendency to neglect a longer contextual view — of historical trends, of broader connections to multiple, complex variables. So when the news media prognosticate on the future, it tends to be with a narrow focus that ignores a lot.

“Framing,” according to researchers like Robert Entman, is the process by which media producers (or any communicator, for that matter) provide structural coherence to the information and events they report, usually by providing a narrative. Framing is necessary — without it, we would be reduced to having to sift through raw data and do our own story contruction to make sense of the world. But this means that those who tell the stories have some real power to shape our political perceptions.

How do polls come in? As British media scholar Justin Lewis has described, echoing the views of many critical experts on public opinion polls, polls can circumscribe and even guide the perceptions we have about the political world. Take the Politico/GWU poll that Blake and Cillizza share. It doesn’t tell us why poll respondents feel the way they do, or what the implications are. That’s for the story writers to discern and share with us. And they conclude that Obama may be in trouble, both in terms of policy leadership and the 2012 campaign. And he may well be.

But the same poll also reports findings that Blake and Cillizza don’t report in their piece that make things ambivalent at best, confusing at worst. According to the poll, 75% of respondents feel that the country is on the wrong track, and in a hypothetical election between Obama and “the Republican candidate” it’s a dead heat: 43% to 43%, 13% undecided. Okay-fine.

But when you start asking about specific candidates, things change. According to the same poll, when you combine “definitely,” “probably,” and “leans,” Obama beats Mitt Romney 49% to 43%. Close, but clear. Obama beats Herman Cain 49% to 40%. And no other candidates are asked about. What does this mean?

It means, in part, that Americans wish the economy was better, blame the president (which is a historical pattern in times of economic downturn, including during the Reagan years before his 1984 blowout of Walter Mondale — this isn’t news), and imagine a world in which “somebody else” would do a better job. But when the rubber hits the road on the alternatives, they believe (at least right now) that Obama is the best choice.

And what about Blake and Cizzilla’s argument about Obama choosing to take a partisan turn, playing to his base, rather than maintain a bipartisan vision?

In many ways, it’s not surprising to see people start to doubt his ability to deal with Congress; Obama has taken a more partisan tone, far different than the more uniting message of his first few years in office, and that’s bound to create some dissension.

First of all, this is not completely accurate, as Obama’s eventual partisan power plays on health care reform illustrate — of course, this was over a year-and-a-half ago, a lifetime in news media terms. Also, the authors forget the the current political moment: this is the late part of the pre-primary season, when (as I said earlier) few people besides us nerds are paying close attention. The Republicans are competing for their party’s nomination, and Obama is the incumbent, so in media agenda-setting terms they will suck all the air out of the Campaign 2012 coverage room anyway.

What does a vulnerable incumbent do this early on while those few who are paying attention focus on the other guys? Well, he does what is necessary to achieve what policy gains he can in Congress, as well as stabilize his support resources for the campaign (fundraising, volunteers, state-level organizations, constituency endorsements) so he has the muscle to play hard in the general election when it emerges at some point in late winter/early spring. He plays to his Democratic base in a partisan way, which is what they want and are looking for in their candidate. Smart move.

What does any of this mean for the months ahead. I don’t honestly know. But what I do know is that we need to be wary when journalistic crystal-ball-gazers start predicting based on polls. Don’t forget context; don’t forget the long view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>