There’s more than one way to read a poll

There's more than one way to read a poll
There's more than one way to read a poll

When I saw the Politico headline this morning, referencing a new CNN poll, I thought the results must have been pretty bad for President Obama. Politico’s homepage featured this headline and subhead: “Poll: Obama trails on key issues; A new poll finds the president’s approval falling in immigration, guns and the deficit.”

It came as something of a surprise, then, when I looked at the poll and found that Obama’s approval rating is up four points to 51%. Indeed, I made a chart showing the relative levels of support for the president, congressional Democrats, and congressional Republicans.

Has Obama’s support dipped a bit from its post-inaugural highs? Sure. But he’s not the one struggling with the American electorate – when respondents were asked about congressional Republicans, their approval rating was down to just 25%, which is pretty abysmal. Indeed, to put that in perspective, in early November 2008, when GOP candidates were getting crushed and the party’s brand had been tarnished by Bush/Cheney catastrophes, support for congressional Republicans was 24%.

Maybe Obama isn’t the one with a popularity problem?

But what about the results showing Obama “trailing on key issues”? Even here, the results aren’t as informative as they should be.

It’s true that in the CNN poll, when respondents were asked whether they approve or disapprove of the president’s “handling” of many issues, Obama’s support has slipped. But the poll doesn’t offer the kind of information needed to be useful.

For example, 46% of Americans approve of how the president is handling taxes, while 52% do not. What this doesn’t tell us is what those respondents who disapprove want – does the 52% want Obama to push for higher taxes or lower? Do they disapprove because he’s done too much on the issue or too little? We don’t know; the poll doesn’t say.

On gun policy, 45% approve of Obama’s handling of the issue, and 52% disapprove. Does the majority want the president to do more or less? Do they disapprove because he’s waited to press this issue, or would they prefer he not press the issue at all? We don’t know; the poll doesn’t say.

A better question would be, “Do you prefer President Obama’s approach to tax policy (or guns, or immigration, etc.) or congressional Republicans’ approach?” At least that would give us some point of reference.


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There's more than one way to read a poll