Monday, July 19, 2010

Means Less Than Zero

For those thinking of 2012 (and, hey, I'm a political junkie -- there's nothing wrong with thinking about VP candidates for 2016, as far I'm concerned), a terrific if unfortunately upside down column from Mark Blumenthal about how useless the early polls are.  Upside down, because he first tackles the reasons why two recent Palin/Obama polls get wildly divergent numbers.  I don't care about those two polls; I care about his conclusion about which poll to pay attention to.:
The case for “neither” is a lot stronger in this instance, for the same reasons. Seven years ago while addressing the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), my new boss Arianna Huffington offered a quip about a similar presidential vote preference question asked nearly four years before the 2004 election:
This is really about as meaningful as phrasing a question in the following way, which I will suggest you try one day, “If the world were to stop spinning, and all life were placed in a state of suspended animation, who would you like to see in the Oval Office when you thawed out?”
Yes, I’m guilty of sucking up a bit with that reference, but she’s right. How many ordinary voters have thought deeply about a contest between Obama and Palin? How many were forming an opinion on the spot when interviewed, only after hearing the question posed over the telephone?
My best advice to anyone trying to understand Sarah Palin’s potential is to put aside these two measures and focus instead on questions about opinions that are closer to real, such as Palin’s favorability rating (as asked in both the PPP survey and the results released by Gallup earlier today). Ordinary people do have genuine, pre-existing opinions about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Polls are on most solid ground when they measure these perceptions separately, rather than asking about a still hypothetical contest that has so far been of interest mostly to political junkies.

All head-to-head presidential polls before, oh, spring of the election year are really completely useless.  They're mostly the result of two things: the president's approval rating, and the name recognition and favorable ratings of the prospective opponent, with most of the weight on the former.  Therefore, everyone is far better off, if they want to know how the president is doing now, just looking at his approval rating.  And if you want to guess how he'll be doing two years from now, go find an honest economist, ask for her best guess about disposable income two years into the future, notice that she's going to give you an answer with an enormous error bar, and conclude that we don't know how vulnerable Obama will be. Or, at least, our political judgments about these things is more useful than the polling, at this stage.

Muskie was beating Nixon in the polls until very late in the game; Mondale was, if I remember correctly, ahead of Reagan in most of 1983.  I don't really remember, but I'm sure that George H.W. Bush was far ahead of any Democrat in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.  It's not that it doesn't matter -- if Obama was at 35% approval, it might well affect his success in Congress and elsewhere.  It's just not additional information. 


  1. Thanks for this. Honestly, our media has been hashing out the next presidential election since Nov. 5 2008. I find it really, really irksome. I realize our media are political junkies, and I'm a political junkie too but for crying out loud that doesn't mean I want to hash out one election after another, ad nauseum. I'm interested in policy issues and other things that don't have that horse-race element.

    Sarah Palin is a wholly media-created phenomenon. That she has any political aspirations at all is a testament to the utter failure of our national news media, who have consistently misread the tea leaves and the mood of the country in their craven search for a "star." Palin is photogenic, and that's about it. Yet every Tweet and Facebook post is pounced upon by our media as if it were serious policy discussion.

    I don't care about Sarah Palin. I refuse to get wrapped up in some manufactured outrage over her latest Tweet. It's all so phony, so obviously orchestrated, the modern-day version of bread and circuses. Sarah Palin is America's Vuvuzela and frankly I don't have time for the BS.

  2. I don't think Palin is media-created; she's McCain created, and has been interested in and very good at using the media once she got created.

    The other thing that I can say is...well, whatever created her, she sure brings traffic.

  3. I would say Palin is the joint creation of the conservative grass roots and the Weekly Standard. There was already a buzz about Palin before McCain chose her, which I would guess was a big part of the reason for the choice. Of course the VP campaign gave her a big boost, but without it I think she would still have come to national prominence eventually.

  4. I remember during the 2004 campaign saying to a friend of mine that I couldn't wait to see the day when the next Presidential cycle began before the current was even over (i.e.- the 2016 race beginning before the 2012 general election). My friend then pointed to Romney and McCain appearing on stage with Bush and saying it's already happened.

  5. But isn't it true that past GOP presidential contests in modern times have usually been more or less predictable? Often the one nominated is someone who had been the front-runner for a long time. This is even true of McCain in '08, whose campaign appeared to collapse at one point. Furthermore, the GOP usually nominates someone who has run for president before. If I'm not mistaken, this has been true in every race in the past 50 years except Nixon in 1960, who was the incumbent vp; Ford in '76, who was the incumbent president; and George W. Bush, the son of a former president. In other words, the GOP usually chooses an establishment favorite who has waited their "turn," and it does seem like it would be Romney's turn in '12.

  6. Kylopod,

    Yes and no. When there's a consensus candidate among party leaders (interpreted broadly), that candidate is going to get nominated. That's been true for the GOP a whole lot of times. But it's not quite as simple to figure out the decision rule for who will be the consensus candidate, and so it isn't "predictable" in that sense.

    To put it another way...there have only been a handful of GOP contests without a clear "next in line." 2012 will be one of those. It will be easy after the fact to argue that Palin or Romney (or Jeb Bush) was next in line if one of them wins, but that doesn't help us know now what is going to happen. And there haven't really been enough of these types of years to make it clear what will happen.

  7. To put it another way . . . there have only been a handful of GOP contests without a clear "next in line." 2012 will be one of those.

    I disagree. Romney is next in line. That doesn't mean he will win, but if he doesn't the 'next in line' hypothesis will have been falsified for this cycle.

    It will be easy after the fact to argue that Palin or Romney (or Jeb Bush) was next in line if one of them wins . . .

    Jeb Bush is clearly a dark horse, and neither Bush nor Palin have run in presidential primaries before.

  8. In 1996 Pat Buchanan was the runner-up, which goes a long way toward explaining the Bush nomination.


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