1. Obama's Falling Numbers. Barack Obama’s job approval numbers reached a new low over the weekend in the RealClearPolitics average. Generally, I’ve seen two types of explanations for the president's decline. One is a structural account that asserts that the president is largely a prisoner of the economy. The other is an insider account that focuses on various messaging/tactical failures of the president, e.g his inability to “empathize.”
I think both accounts are too simple. My take is that the president was due to be in a relatively poor political situation right now, thanks largely to the economy, but his policy choices in office have resulted in a worse position than he would otherwise have found himself.
Imagine a counter-example. Suppose that John Kerry won the 2004 presidential election, and swept into power a Democratic Congress. Next, suppose that the 2008 recession came just as it did in the real world, and George W. Bush did a 21st century version of Grover Cleveland, winning a broad nationwide victory that installed a strong new Republican majority in Congress. Now, suppose that the GOP did a slap-dash job of trying to restore the economy – the reason the electorate swung to the GOP in the first place – so that they could immediately pivot to passing a Social Security “privatization” plan, a long-standing goal of economic conservatives who recognized that the economic crisis created unprecedented political opportunities. The party used rough elbows to get a messy and unpopular version of its basic bill passed through the Congress; meanwhile, the economy continued to stagnate as their attempts to revive growth and employment were deemed by most independent observers to be terribly inefficient.
Where would the Republicans be in the 2010 of this alternative universe? They’d be in as bad a shape as the Democrats. Rather than focus on doing what the voters elected them to do, they instead focused on a longstanding ideological goal of the party elite. On the other hand, if hypothetical Bush and actual Obama had focused on restoring the economy - just as Franklin Roosevelt did in the historic 73rd Congress of 1933-34 - they might still be set for losses, but I think they would have been greatly mitigated, as at least they could claim they did everything that could be done to restore the economy to health. Similarly, if FDR had decided to pursue the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act rather than stabilizing the economy during the First New Deal, I think the Democrats would have suffered serious losses in the 1934 midterm. Instead, FDR wisely saved those sorts of reforms for later years.
2. How To Read The Polls, Part 1 of a Series. Examining political polling has a lot in common with buying a good piece of fruit. You don’t just go into the grocery store and load up the cart with any old plums you find. You take some time to examine the plums that are being offered, making sure they aren’t too ripe, bruised, etc. Even though the plums your grocer is selling all came from the same place, some are better than others.
Ditto with political polling. You have to be careful with the polls. They’re all generally all right, but some are better than others. You have to know what to look for.
The most important way to diagnose the quality of a poll is to look at party identification spreads. There is no better predictor of vote choice than party identification. That’s been true for as long as political polling has been done, and it is now a better predictor than ever. The two sides now break for their own candidates on about a 90/10 basis these days, and comparing a poll to recent exit polling can give us a good sense of whether or not it is oversampling a particular side. While we can’t know for sure exactly what the partisan spread will be this year, we can be pretty confident that the electorate will be less Democratic than it was in 2008, and the exit polls from that cycle can all be found here. Instead, it will be closer to the 2004 electorate.
So, that offers an easy way to evaluate the accuracy of a poll. For instance, via Allahpundit, consider the Kentucky Senate poll by SurveyUSA, which gives the Democrats a fifteen-point edge in party identification, compared to the nine-point edge they actually enjoyed in 2008 or the four-point Democratic edge in 2004. Use those 2004 partisan identification numbers against the SurveyUSA results, and you find Rand Paul with a nine-point lead, rather than the advertised two-point lead. Now, SurveyUSA is a very fine pollster, which I have praised on this page. Importantly, the laws of statistics say very clearly you do enough polls, sooner or later you're going to produce results that are outliers, as this poll appears to be. Ultimately, it's up to each of us to be smart consumers of polling.
Looking at party ID can give a good sense of how accurate the poll is. Partisan identification on Election Day is fairly stable and predictable. In the last few cycles, good Republican years tend to result in roughly equal party strength, e.g. 2004. Good Democratic years tend to be D+5 or more nationwide. All accounts suggest that this will be a good Republican year, which means polls whose statewide party identification spreads are closer to 2008 than 2004 are probably over-sampling Democrats.
My advice: bookmark those links to the 2004 and 2008 exit polls, and use the data you find there to evaluate the polling that comes out from this point forward.
3. The Corzine Effect. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Jon Corzine. The former governor of New Jersey pops into my head every time I look at polls of the Wisconsin and Nevada Senate races. Both Russ Feingold and Harry Reid seem to be stuck in the same basic position that Corzine was in.
To appreciate what I mean, consider the following chart, which tracks the average monthly polling position of Corzine, Feingold, and Reid through the summer. Corzine’s numbers are obviously for 2009 while Feingold and Reid’s numbers are from this year.
I’m really struck by the fact that the numbers of all three incumbents were basically unchanged through the whole summers in question, with all three of them consistently under 50 percent.
This is undoubtedly of great concern to both Feingold and Reid. Opinions of them in their respective states are pretty well set. Feingold has been in the Senate for eighteen years, Reid for twenty-four. There’s very little either will be able to do to convince people they deserve another term. Instead, both will undoubtedly emphasize how their opponents do not deserve to be elected. That was Corzine’s basic strategy. It didn’t work for the former New Jersey Governor, and my intuition is that the same will be true for Feingold and Reid as well.
4. Questions? I'll be diving back into the mailbag later in the week, so if you have a question you think I could answer, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.