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Obama and the Polling Pandemic: Blips vs. Substance

4 years ago
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The spun-sugar Barack Obama story line inevitably had to come to an abrupt end because, in reality, handsome princes do not live with their perfect families in gingerbread castles forever. Political coverage revolves around change and flux. Frankly, it is quite boring – not to mention cloying – to keep typing analogous paragraphs about the unflappable Obama administration in proud ascendancy.

So the first flicker of Obama's vulnerabilities in the national polls invited an over-reaction from Pollyanna to piranha. The turnabout began with a front-page July 20 Washington Post story bluntly headlined, "Poll Shows Obama Slipping on Key Issues." That banana-peel slippage became the dominant theme of White House coverage even before Obama took a pratfall with his initial comments on the Skip Gates flap. In echo-chamber fashion, each major media organization weighed in with its own poll numbers ballyhooed like this New York Times exclusive last week, "New Poll Finds Growing Unease on Health Plan."

A strong case can be made that these pile-on polls by themselves cause growing unease. Since the 1930s, polls have been part of the national political debate eagerly parsed by presidents and pundits alike. But never has their influence loomed larger. The rabid fascination with the 2008 election turned America into a nation of polling junkies with everyone from high-school students to elderly shut-ins loudly opining about sampling techniques and margins of error.

But now we are 15 months from the congressional elections and 39 months from Obama's next rendezvous with the voters – and the polling pandemic shows no sign of being quarantined. The problem is not the statistical accuracy of the fleeting impressions recorded by pollsters but rather the hyper-active emphasis on their importance. Do you know what the biggest news story covered by the blogosphere was from July 20-24? Hint: Erase all glimmers of substance from your brain. According to the weekly monitoring by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the winner (cue the trumpet flourish) was Obama's declining poll numbers. Conservative bloggers, in particular, reveled over the fantasy of the incredible shrinking president.

Bill Clinton may have been the president who invented the permanent campaign, but the blogosphere has certainly embraced the concept with a vengeance. Treating every blip in public opinion as a political watershed is just another symptom of the flight from substance in the national debate. The fate of Pakistan may be far more important for America's future, but guessing at the future of politics is certainly more fun.

Too much discussion of contemporary politics pivots around drawing epic conclusions from inadequate data. It is ludicrous to argue that polls taken during the first summer of a new presidency are an infallible predictor of anything. Like the stock market, political numbers fluctuate. In truth, most individual surveys are perishable – seeming wizardly windows into the future that are seer today and gone tomorrow.

But the weight of polling over a period of months does help to illuminate larger political trends. That is why one of the summer's most fascinating political documents is the Gallup Poll's just-released compilation of its nightly tracking surveys during the first six months of 2009. Based on party identification questions asked of 160,000 adults, Gallup paints an electoral map that makes the Republican prospects almost as bleak as the Prohibition Party.

Gallup rates exactly four states (Alaska, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming) as solid Republican with Alabama the only additional one that is leaning Republican. In contrast, Gallup labels 30 states as solid Democratic, including every state north of Tennessee and east of the Mississippi River. When states like Kansas, South Carolina and Texas (which have not gone Democratic in presidential elections in more than three decades) are considered competitive terrain, it suggests how dramatically the tectonic plates have shifted.

These same Democratic trends were visible in the details of the 2008 exit polls. Obama carried both Hispanic voters and voters under 30 by better than two-to-one margins. Since both Latinos and young voters are among the fastest growing demographic groups in the electorate, it underscores the challenges facing the GOP. All signs point to these groups remaining disproportionately loyal to Obama. Even a late July poll by the Pew Research Center ominously headlined "Obama's Ratings Slide Across the Board" found that voters under 30 approve of Obama's performance in office by a margin of 63-to-26 percent. And Gallup consistently shows Obama's rating among Hispanic voters at over 70 percent.

None of this, of course, guarantees that the Democrats will hold their own in Congress in 2010 or that Obama will be reelected in 2012. But these long-term demographic and geographic shifts are far more significant pointers to the future than politically maladroit press-conference statements about Skip Gates and the atmospherics of this week's health-care debate.

It is also worth pointing out that glib historical analogies have their limitations as well. Just because 1994 (the Gingrich Revolution) and 2006 (the Democratic comeback in Congress) were sea-change national elections does not pre-ordain that the pattern will be repeated in 2010. Sometimes off-year congressional elections are primarily shaped by micro factors such as candidate recruitment, voter targeting, campaign money and local issues.

Maybe the press deserves to be faulted for being too sycophantic to presidents on the way up and too vicious to presidents on the way down. But it is folly for the pundit parade to over-react to normal fluctuations in a president's poll numbers. If you want to play the numbers, buy a lottery ticket. But if you want to take politics seriously, play the skeptic at the next premature poll vault.

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