Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Pox On All Your Polls!

We are a nation obsessed with polls and surveys.  Every organization wants to know how you feel about virtually everything these days.  I stay in a hotel and within a day or two a survey shows up in my email box asking me to evaluate my stay. I go out to eat and there it is on the table, the ubiquitous survey to rate my food, my waitress, the price, the atmosphere, yada, yada, yada.  There are internet survey companies that specialize in product marketing or political polling for clients.  Then there are the national organizations like Gallup and Zogby and others.  You can even post a poll on Facebook for all your 'friends' to take.  I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee Monday and my receipt had a link to a survey promising a free donut if I just completed the poll within three days!  Of course, I'd have to drive 50 miles round trip to get my free donut.  Even I'm not immune to the polling craze.  As part of my summer research project I developed a survey on political attitudes that I'm putting the finishing touches on now so it can be sent out, hopefully nationwide with a little help from my friends (cue the Beatles music here...).

Which brings me to my main point:  Everywhere we turn these days we are inundated with news about a new poll or survey telling us what we think, usually about politics and our elected leaders.  Congress approval ratings hit new low, one poll tells us.  Another survey has Sarah Palin within 5 points of President Obama.  The next one shows Romney or Perry in a dead heat with the president.  The latest polls are trumpeting the fall of the house of Obama.  Do the polls mean anything?  Not much.  Is Obama's approval falling through the floor?  Not really. But the media is obsessed with the polls nearly 14 months before the next election and 4 months before the first votes are cast in Iowa.  Just for fun I thought I'd take a look at recent presidents and their poll numbers.  Here's what I found.

President Obama Approval Ratings Chart
 President George W. Bush Approval Ratings Chart
 President Clinton Approval Ratings Chart
 President George H.W. Bush Approval Ratings Chart
 President Reagan Approval Ratings Chart
 What's the point, you ask?  Simply that the media narrative doesn't fit the polls.  If we look at the past five presidents and their poll numbers over their terms we see a lot of fluctuation, usually from a high point early in their presidency (the honeymoon) to a low point just after the midterm election followed by a subsequent rise, except in the case of George W. Bush who just kept declining from his post 9/11 high point.  What is most interesting about the Obama numbers isn't that he sits around 42% in the most recent Gallup Poll, though one poll found the number as low as 39 percent, but that his numbers have been remarkably stable for nearly 18 months.  Disapproval has risen a bit as one would expect in the wake of the repeated cave-ins to the GOP (Republicans won't like Obama no matter what he does so getting the disapproval rate below 40% is nearly impossible, though, yes, a recent poll suggests that even Republican voters support the key elements of Obama's job plan) as liberals express some disapproval. 

The bottom line is really that his poll numbers have been stable for quite awhile.  No massive swings in popularity or disapproval, just stability.  This indicates that those who don't like the president have solidified in their opposition and those who do have solidified in their support.  Barring an economic disaster or an unforeseen economic boom, President Obama will be facing reelection in 14 months with very similar numbers.  That's not great news for the president but neither is it the knell of death.

**Charts can be found at**

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