Tag Archives: polling data

So, About That Bain Controversy…Surprise! (Not)

The results of the latest CBS/NY Times poll (hat tip to Lucia for bringing this to my attention), which was in the field July 11-16 during the heart of the Bain controversy, has attracted more than its fair share of attention primarily because it has Mitt Romney holding a slim 2 point lead over Barack Obama, 45%-43%. (If you throw in leaners Romney is up 47%-46%). This is the first time Romney has “led” in a CBS/Times poll since January when he was still locked in a fight for the Republican nomination. Whenever the relative positions of the two candidates appear to change, it gets the pundits’ attention.   In truth, however, given the poll’s margin of error, the survey is showing what just about every survey of the race taken this year has shown, which is that the two candidates are essentially deadlocked.

However, this may not be what you expected if you were closely following the pronouncements from the punditocracy during the last two weeks. Despite my warning that the Bain controversy would likely have little impact on the race, the Kevin Drums and Rush Limbaughs of the pundits’ world were engaged in hand-to-hand combat in an effort frame Bain most favorably for their preferred candidate – which, of course, is one reason why I didn’t think Bain would have much impact.

The bigger reason, however, is that most voters have already made up their mind regarding who they will support, and those that haven’t aren’t really paying close attention to Bain. According to the Times survey, 38% of those surveyed are paying “some” attention to the race, while another 14% are paying “not much” and 3% “none”.   At the risk of provoking another Kevin Drum seizure, this is exactly the point I was making in my (edited) comment to Jamelle Bouie, when I noted that most of the roughly 30% of voters yet to make up their mind aren’t paying close attention to the presidential race, including specific campaign ads, at all.  (For the record, the Times survey indicates 79% of voters have made up their minds – even higher than I estimated.)

You are going to hear this from me again and again in the next several weeks, so let me apologize in advance.  The media’s fixation on the horse-race aspect of the race means they are going to exaggerate the importance of relatively trivial events, like the Romney tax returns (don’t we have a debate over releasing tax returns every four years?) because pundits and journalists that quote them are in a narrative-driven business cued to daily and even hourly deadlines.  Journalists have to file a story or more every day, and they depend on quotes and “analysis” from pundits who feed them their talking points.  If you are a political junkie, however, as are many of my readers, it is easy to get sucked into this daily narrative and lose sight of what really moves voters.  After you’ve seen the 39th analysis of why Romney isn’t releasing his tax returns, it’s easy to think this must be an important issue to most voters.  After all, Drum can’t be wrong, can he?  (Ok, it’s a rhetorical question.)

But outside the pundits’ echo chamber it’s not a very important issue – at least not to Joe and Jane Sixpack.  Instead, they’ve got deeper concerns – concerns that will determine how they vote come November.  And the number one concern is the economy.   June’s unemployment numbers, as you know, were disappointing, with only about 80,000 jobs created and the official unemployment rate still hovering above 8%. The real unemployment number is actually worse, however; if we include those who have simply stopped looking for work, the rate is probably closer to 15%.  Meanwhile, the second quarter GDP numbers are likely to show anemic growth as well, even as the first-quarter number is adjusted slightly downward.   In short, the economic news of late has not been good.

And this is where the CBS/Times survey is more revealing.   To begin, for most voters, this fall’s election is going to be primarily a referendum on Obama – not on Romney.  Only 29% of Romney supporters look on him with a “strongly favorable” attitude – but 37% support him because they “dislike” Obama.  The corresponding numbers of Obama supporters are 41% “strongly favorable” and only 23% “dislike” Romney.  This is why Bain and the tax issue aren’t gaining as much polling traction nationwide as the pundits anticipated.  According to the Times’ survey, Romney’s favorability rating, which was at 29% in April, actually went up 3% during the Bain controversy.

Obama, on the other, saw his favorability/unfavorability ratio drop significantly – largely because of continued pessimism over the economy.   By a margin of 55%-39%, more respondents “disapprove” than “approve” of Obama’s handling of the economy.  Almost 40% of respondents rate the economy as “bad” – 32% say it is “very bad”.   Only 24% of respondents think the economy is getting better – with 30% saying it is getting worse.  These trends matter because 93% of voters say that the economy is “extremely” (54%) or “very” (39%) important in determining how they will vote this fall.

But here’s the kicker, and why Obama is so vulnerable.  Fully 51% of those surveyed believe the condition of the national economy “is something the president can do a lot about”!  That’s up 10% from last September!  That is, as the economic downturn persists, people increasingly believe the President can do something about it.   Why do people hold to this belief?  Because those running for president claim that they can turn the economy around – Barack Obama said so in 2008, and Mitt Romney is making the same claim now.  Once in office, of course, no President is going to announce that he was fooling everyone, and that in fact the economy is driven by factors largely out of his control!   And so Obama is stuck facing unrealistic expectations partly fueled by his own campaign promises.

At this point, it is evident that the economy is not going to turn around quickly enough and to the degree necessary to insure Obama’s reelection.  Hence his effort to try to link Romney, by portraying him as a “vulture capitalist”, to the policies that contributed to the current economic malaise.   In truth, the President has very little choice in the matter, given the few cards he has to play.   By a margin of 49%-41%, more voters believe Romney will do a better job than Obama in handling the economy.  If he is to win reelection, Obama has to persuade enough voters that this is not true.   But he is facing an uphill climb; 64% of respondents think Obama holds “a lot” (34%) or “some” (30%) of the responsibility for the current state of the economy.  Although Obama supporters point out that those same respondents hold George W. Bush more responsible for the current economic woes, Bush isn’t on the ballot come November – Obama is.

Until then, we have almost four months of punditry to go. So, sit back and enjoy the daily food fight as the pundits debate Mitt’s tax returns and what Obama meant when he said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that” and whatever other story dominates the latest news cycle.  Just remember – most of these debates are about peripheral issues that aren’t likely to have any lasting impact.  Distilled to its essence, November’s election will largely be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy. That means the next big campaign event is likely to take place on July 27th, when the first estimate of the second quarter GDP will be released.  In the interim, cue the pundits!

Obama, Huckabee, Romney in Dead Heat for 2012 – Or Maybe Not


Two recently released surveys of registered voters appear to provide contradictory results regarding the 2012 presidential election.  The first, conducted by Pew during the second week of March, shows President Obama handedly beating a generic Republican candidate for president.

However, CNN released a second poll of registered voters yesterday, conducted by Fairleigh University from March 21-28 that indicates Obama is in essentially a dead heat with both Mike Huckabee (46%-46%) and Mitt Romney (Obama leads 44%-43%) in the 2012 race.

As Peter Baumann notes in an e-mail, these results seem surprising; it is more often the case that incumbents do worse against hypothetical generic opponents because survey respondents can fill in the blank with their ideal candidate.  When matched up with specific candidates, however, voters are asked to choose between two real people, and incumbents often benefit.  If Peter is right, what explains the results in these two surveys which show Obama doing better against the hypothetical Republican?  The answer, I suspect, lies in the question wording of the respective surveys and in the smaller sample size of the Dickinson survey.

Pew begins its survey by asking respondents whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of a number of people, beginning with President Obama.   They also ask about former presidents Bush and Clinton and House Speaker John Boehner.

Although Obama’s job approval ratings are hovering in the mid-40’s, his personal favorability ratings have consistently been higher.  In the Pew poll, 58% of respondents view Obama “very” or “mostly” favorably, compared to 27% who view Boehner this way.  (Bush is viewed favorably by 42% and Clinton leads the pack with 67% favorability rating).   After leading with the question about Obama’s favorability rating, and implicitly comparing it to that of Boehner and Bush (and Clinton), Pew then goes on to ask about the 2012 hypothetical matchup with a generic Republican.   So respondents, in thinking about that generic “Republican”, do so in the context of being asked about two unpopular Republicans: Bush and Boehner.

Now look at how Fairleigh Dickinson begins its survey.

By beginning the survey this way, respondents are “primed” to answer the head-to-head matchups question primarily in terms of their views on whether the country is heading in the right direction, and on Obama’s job approval – not his favorability ratings compared to other Republicans.  As you can see, a substantial percentage of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, and a near majority disapprove of the job Obama is doing. It’s not surprising, given the way the question wording primes them, that respondents in the Fairleigh Dickinson poll see Obama doing less well in head-to-head matchups than Pew finds him doing against a generic Republican opponent.

There is a second difference between the polls as well. Although the Dickinson survey of 800 respondents has a margin of error of +/- 3.5%, which is quite similar to Pew’s margin of error (+/- 3%) this does not hold for all the survey questions in the Dickinson poll. In fact, the numbers for these subsamples of respondents comparing Obama to Romney and Huckabee are much smaller (see table above) meaning the margin of error for both groups is substantially larger than the poll’s overall margin of error.  So, we need to view these results indicating that Obama is in a dead heat with both candidates with the requisite dose of salt.

My point here is not to say that one poll is more accurate than the other.  It is to remind you that, as we enter the 2012 presidential campaign, you will be inundated with polling data, much of which will be spun by politicians and pundits according to their political persuasions and which will be hyped by news media outlets that views poll results as “hard” news.  As consumers, you need to cut through the spin and hype to examine the details of the polls.  Pay attention to both question wording and order, and to the margin of error associated with survey subsamples.  All polls are not alike.

Addendum (2:32 p.m.)  Three days ago Quinnipiac released a nationwide poll taken March 21-28 that received quite a bit of national play for its headline “Obama Gets Lowest Approval, Reelect Score Ever”.   His approval/disapproval rating was 42/48%, and 50% of respondents said he did not deserve reelection. Of greater relevance to this post,  however, is that in the hypothetical 2012 matchup between Obama and a generic Republican, the poll found that  Obama got 36% of the vote compared to 37% against the unnamed Republican.   In contrast to the Pew poll, however, the Quinnipiac poll used different question wording; the generic matchup question was the first one Quinnipiac asked respondents, so they were not primed to respond in terms of a specific Republican, as they were in the Pew poll.   Again, it is a reminder that question order can influence polling results, even when identical questions are asked.  

Say it ain’t so, Dr. Joe! (And More Specter fallout)

Leading the news today is Dr. Joe Biden’s medical advice, issued on the Today show, that people should avoid riding in airplanes, or taking the subway, or using other forms of mass transit.  Never mind that health officials don’t agree with Dr. Joe – he’s the vice president!  With one foot-in-mouth moment, Dr. Joe singlehandedly counteracts the impact of the $800 billion stimulus bill. We love this guy!  (So does the President, I am certain.)

Now, in response to your inquiries, more on the Specter decision. Several of you have asked why I discount the political science research showing that a switch in party labels usually leads to a switch in voting patterns.  In fact, based on that research, most political scientists that I know believe Specter’s voting pattern will now move quickly and significantly to the Left (see here, for example).

The reason why I don’t believe this is necessarily the case is because that research is based on House switchers, not Senate switchers. In addition to the differences in how the two chambers operate (the House is designed to empower the majority party as a voting bloc, the Senate operates on a more individualistic basis), House districts are almost always smaller, and more ideologically homogeneous.  Senators, on the other hand, represent typically larger and more ideologically diverse states.  As a result, House incumbents usually are less vulnerable to electoral defeat (their reelection rates hover in the mid 90% range), and find it easier to stake out a more partisan voting position congruent with the majority of voters in their district.  Not so for Senators, who typically face stronger challengers who are more effective at using their voting record against them, and who must appeal to a more diverse electorate.   That’s why I am skeptical that previous research on party switching based on the House is applicable to the Senate.

But this provides the opportunity for a natural experiment.  According to Simon Jackman (see chart below), Specter now ranks as the third most liberal Republican in the current (111th) Senate.  (These rankings are based on the Nominate scores – moving Left, along the negative numbers, means you are more liberal, right toward positive numbers is more conservative. The Senators are broken into two columns to save space.)

If I’m right, Specter’s voting record should keep him somewhere in the middle of the Senate pack, ideologically, over the course of the next two years.  If my poli sci colleagues are correct, he should move sharply left closer to the middle of the Democratic Senate voting ranks (say, into Dianne Feinstein/Harry Reid territory).   So we can revisit this issue in two years!

So, why did Specter switch parties?  Largely because of the fallout from the stimulus bill – another reminder why bipartisanship is so difficult in today’s polarized climate.  A March Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania voters found the following (see poll here): “Overall Pennsylvania voters have a 45 – 31 percent favorable opinion of Sen. Specter, but he gets a 47 – 29 percent unfavorable score from Republicans. The Republican gets a 60 – 16 percent thumbs up from Democrats and a 41 – 35 percent positive from independent voters.” Much of that disapproval is rooted in Specter’s support of the stimulus package. “Specter’s support of President Barack Obama’s Stimulus Package wins 87 – 6 percent support from Democrats and 56 – 38 percent support from independent voters, while Republican voters disapprove 70 – 25 percent.”  It is not a good sign when your own party’s constituents disown you. As a result, he was likely to lose if he ran in the Republican primary against the less well known Republican Congressman Pat Toomey.  The Quinnipiac poll found Specter trailing Toomey 41 – 27 percent in a Republican primary for the 2010 Senate race, with 28 percent undecided.  A more recent Rasmussen poll (see here) of likely Republican primary voters has Specter getting crushed by Toomey, 51%-30%. More generally, Specter’s approval ratings began nosing downward after the stimulus vote, although he still has more favorable than unfavorable support among all voters.

There are two lessons to draw from this.  First, if Specter has negotiated an understanding with leading Democrats to clear the field of potential challengers in the Democratic Pennsylvania Senate primary (as it appears to be the case), then he has a strong shot at winning the general election for another term as Pennsylvania Senator.  But that wouldn’t happen as a Republican; he wasn’t likely to make it out of the Republican primary.

My larger point is to reiterate an earlier observation: it is often said by pundits, particularly those on the Left, that the Republicans have become the party of “NO”, unalterably opposed to anything Obama proposes.  But the reality, as Specter discovered, is that many Republicans on Capitol Hill face a potential backlash among their core Republican voters in the primary if they appear to support programs that involve increased spending and a greater government role in the economy.  From this perspective, Republican opposition to much of Obama’s program is perfectly logical (and quite predictable).  As an aside, note that Obama doesn’t seem to grasp this, at least not based on his public statements.  Last night during his press conference, he once again reiterated his reminder to Republicans that, “we won.”   Of course, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, from the perspective of individual members of Congress, this is not the case – Obama ran behind most of them, and of course didn’t win very many Republican districts at all.

Aside to Jack, Vijay and Marty:  I don’t have polling data on Tom Ridge versus Specter, but I think Ridge is precisely the kind of Republican who would make it difficult for Specter to win in the general election. However, (for reasons Vijay alludes to in his comment on my earlier post) Ridge would also have to get through the Republican primary – not a sure thing, although he doesn’t have the baggage of a stimulus vote to defend.  Also, I don’t think he has lived in Pennsylvania in some time, although given his history there that may not make a difference to voters.  For what it is worth, here’s Ridge’s statement on Specter’s defection:

“I’ve known Arlen Specter for many years. In no way does his departure from the Republican Party diminish his long record of service to his country and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“As Arlen will understand, my support is with my Party and with the people of my home state, whom I believe can best be served in the Senate by the GOP.

“So let’s begin the discussion of ideas with a respectful contest as Pennsylvania and the nation continue to work collectively through these challenging times.”

Does that mean Ridge is jumping into the race?  I have no idea.  As for the “Club for Growth” and PAC’s more generally, as my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reminds us, the power of PACs to shape elections appears to have diminished a bit compared to the relative impact of campaign contributions from strongly partisan individuals.  I hope to post on this more extensively.  In any case, I wouldn’t suggest that Specter is the victim of an orchestrated party purge, so much as he fell prey to diminishing enthusiasm among likely Republican voters.  There is a fascinating story here on why politics is increasingly polarized and I hope to discuss it more fully in later posts.