Monday, September 26, 2011

Hey, Reporters!

Here's the thing. Barack Obama isn't as popular now as he was in January 2009. This is not exactly a little-known fact; indeed, we fortunately have some really good indicators of exactly how popular Obama is overall, and they're not all that obscure.

What this means is that sloppy journalists can get endless mileage from picking out any subgroup in the nation and finding out that, gee, Obama has lost popularity there! See, for example, a NYT story over the weekend noting that some Obama '08 donors are less enthusiastic this time around. Now, Seth Masket isn't sure that the trend in the story exists in the first place, but even if it does: of course some past Obama supporters don't like him as much now! He's less popular than he was then!

To know whether any of these stories is actually news, it's absolutely necessary to compare Obama's decline within the group in question to his overall decline. If it's more, then you have something; if it's the same or less, then you're at beset illustrating how an overall decline works within that subgroup (which might be a decent story, as long as you're clear about what you're doing). Context matters, and for changes in Obama's approval rating with any subgroup the obvious context is his overall approval ratings.

7 comments:

  1. Hmm.

    Journalists are lazy. No question.

    But can you really use this vs. the baseline?

    And how did they get the FEC numbers? Did the 08 campaign report all donors, or just the $250 ones? I forget. It is safe to say, however, that Obama's earlier supporters are upset. What I am amused about is WHAT they are upset about...

    I've seen two outliers: african americans and people with other 90K in income.

    Only 1/3 of white peopel approving your job. Bad.

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  2. Excellent Post! I think that you can add some other necessary frames of reference to your argument. Say it is found that Obama's supporters do not like him as much now (which may be true), you also need to take into account the publics overall disenfranchisement with politics. Is there a decline in the public view of the Democrats? The Republicans? Congress? I seem to remember reading something about Congress' approval rating lately.

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  3. Nice post.

    I always think of those stories as the equivalent of the election-day daytime stories that discuss high/low turnout by observing the line at a few local polling places: empirically worthless filler that somehow has become the modal story at a slow news point.

    It's amazing to me that this stuff is still printed.

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  4. Matt, it's about the equivalent of the blog post complaining about the meaninglessness of that filler, not to mention the comment at the blog about the pointlessness of the blog post... er...

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  5. To know whether any of these stories is actually news, it's absolutely necessary to compare Obama's decline within the group in question to his overall decline

    This might be true if the two groups were the same, or at least had similar variances; in the matter at hand that all-important requirement pretty obviously does not apply.

    I mean, if Obama's overall popularity has dropped from 60% to 40%, what would be a 'meaningful' comparable drop among the zealots? 100 to 80 (same total points)? Or 100 to 67 (same percentage)? Or some other metric? We have no idea.

    Even if we were confident of the metric, a bigger problem remains: a decline in national popularity is not presumptively correlated with a decline in zealot popularity. Consider Dubya's popularity decline from 9/11 to, say, midway through his second term.

    On 9/11 Dubya arguably had all Republicans, all independents, and maybe 3/4 of the left on his side. I think we'd all agree there was a point, probably early-to-mid second term, where Dubya's popularity among Republicans (zealots) was unchanged vs. 9/11.

    (But his overall numbers had plummeted due to him losing everyone else).

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  6. Also, wouldn't declining enthusiasm among "donors" be significant even if it were comparable to the overall decline? The lost donations could have an immediate impact on the viability of the campaign, including the campaign's capacity to reenergize the other former enthusiasts.

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  7. Every president's popularity goes down right after he's inaugurated. The poll numbers are artificially high on the day of his inauguration, then automatically come back down to earth. To even use those poll numbers as a measuring stick is absurd.

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