President Barack Obama smiles during a news conference in the Brady Press Room at the White House in Washington, D.C, Dec. 20, 2013.
Charles Dharapak/AP

Overreacting to polls is folly

There’s an unfortunate pattern when it comes to the political world’s erratic fascination with polls. The pattern looks like this: if survey results offer bad news for President Obama, they’re extremely important. If the numbers look good for the White House, they’re meaningless.
Not quite two weeks ago, for example, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama’s approval rating climbing from 41% to 46% – the biggest one-month jump for the president in three years. This poll, naturally, was deemed unimportant. (To underscore the point, look at the Washington Post headline from late April when Obama’s numbers looked bad, as compared to the same paper’s headline from June when Obama’s numbers looked good.)
Twelve days later, the political world is extremely excited about the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Just when our NBC/WSJ poll from April showed President Barack Obama bouncing back a bit after the surge of enrollment in the health-care exchanges, then came the crisis in Ukraine. Then the VA hospital controversy. The controversial Bowe Bergdahl release. And now the current instability in Iraq. And they’ve knocked Obama back down to where he was during the HealthCare.Gov woes – or even worse.
Our brand-new NBC/WSJ poll shows Obama’s overall job-approval rating at 41%, a three-point drop from two months ago.
Ron Fournier, true to form, cited the poll as proof that Obama is “getting dangerously” close to “failed presidency territory.” He added, in a disappointing display of sarcasm, “It’s the GOP’s fault, right?”
I’d note that presidencies tend to succeed or fail based on substantive accomplishments and policy outcomes, not individual polls that reinforce preconceived media narratives. Let’s also note that were it not for congressional Republicans’ refusal to govern or work cooperatively on any issue, yes, it’s likely the president’s poll numbers would be higher. Why anyone would find that controversial is a bit of a mystery.
But a certain degree of intellectual honesty would also help. Why does a five-point jump in Obama’s approval rating seem unimportant two weeks ago, while a three-point drop inch Obama closer to “failed presidency territory”? Why does one poll that tells the president’s critics what they want to hear trump overall polling averages that show Obama’s support steadily growing over the last several months?
For that matter, it’s really not that hard for media professionals to take a few minutes, review recent polling history, and realize there’s nothing especially remarkable about what we’re seeing now. Greg Sargent’s take rings true.
Sure, Obama’s low approval matters a good deal in the context of the midterms, where it could put the Senate at real risk, particularly if it remains this low. But come on, this isn’t any milestone. The big picture is that the averages show Obama isn’t even at an all time low — he’s at just under 45 percent — and meanwhile, in Gallup tracking going back to 2009, Obama’s approval has hit 41 percent or below a half dozen times in the last five years.
I’d like to think people who reflect on political developments for a living would at least try to remember context like this. Obama hits 41% approval and some of his lazier critics pounce and write his political epitaph … only to see the president’s numbers improve, prompting his critics to talk about something else … until he hits 41% approval again, prompting another round of finger-pointing … until the president’s numbers improve again. Rinse, lather, repeat.
I distinctly remember when didn’t work for a couple of months last fall. Lazy pundits not only declared Obama’s presidency over, but also insisted it was a Katrina-like moment from which the president would never recover. Except the site was soon after fixed; Obama’s approval rating went up; and the pundits found something new to whine about.
I can appreciate why individual polls occasionally show striking, noteworthy results, but these overreactions to data that confirm pundits’ biases are tiresome. Read the polls, consider the averages, resist the urge to cherry pick, and try not to overreact. This isn’t rocket science, folks.
As for Republicans excited to see Obama’s support falter, at least in this one poll, I’d encourage them to take a closer look at the details: the president is still vastly more popular than the GOP and Congress.