Friday, November 20, 2009

Barack Houdini No More

After flirting with it for months, Obama's approval rating, per Gallup, finally fell below 50% today. He's at 49%.

The Gallup story about it is, I'm afraid, massively irresponsible. Gallup's Jeffrey Jones compares Obama to previous presidents based on how quickly they fell below 50%, and how quickly they recovered from that landmark. What he completely ignores, however, is that the frequency of Gallup polling is not constant over the period he discusses. Obama is the first president for whom Gallup is running a daily tracking poll. Over time, Gallup has gradually accelerated its readings from once a month or fewer to today's daily track. So we don't really know whether Reagan, Carter, or even Nixon might have had a reading below 50% if they had been tracked daily. At the same time, we'll see whether Obama stays below 50% for a while, but it's certainly possible that today's reading will turn out to be a low -- a low that might never have been recorded if Gallup was polling once a month or so.

The other side of it, the recovery time, is even worse. There's every possibility that Obama will "recover" to 50% or higher as early as tomorrow, which will set a completely meaningless record for the fastest such recovery -- since no previous president would have had the opportunity to rebound the next day.

And that's not to mention that all such polling is imprecise. In reality, Obama's true approval rating probably fell below 50% before this (he's hit exactly 50 several times over a few months). But this particular low spike might turn out to be just a fluke, and not a real change at all. Gallup's story pretends that Obama's approval rating is a lot more real than they have reason to believe.

The obvious cure, by the way, for those who want to know Obama's actual approval rating is to go over to, where their trend line has Obama right now at exactly 50.0%. Just be cautious: the folks are constructing a trend line, rather than a static average, and it changes as new data emerges. They've had Obama dip below 50% a few times only to revise it upwards as new, higher, numbers come in that reveal the previous most recent polls were flukes, not predictions of a new direction.

Oh, and I should mention somewhere in here that there's no practical difference between a president at 49%, 50%, or 51% approval level. But you knew that.

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