In Presidential Polling, Context Always Matters

by Stuart Rothenberg February 1, 2012 · 1:20 PM EST

It’s as predictable as night following day.

Events drive public sentiment, which then shows up in polling. Then, people who either want to make a splash or more often simply want to drive home partisan talking points use the numbers to proclaim a fundamental shift in public opinion and political reality, regardless of whether there is one.

The latest example of this is the Jan. 22-24 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which, as regular readers of this column should know, is my favorite national survey. I read, respect and consider many other surveys, but I’ll admit a special place in my heart for the survey conducted jointly by Colby College graduate Peter Hart (D) of Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Bill McInturff (R) of Public Opinion Strategies.

The January NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has interesting results, but even they should be seen in context if they are going to be understood correctly.

I don’t for a moment dispute the poll’s numbers, which show growing public optimism, a politically stronger President Barack Obama, damage to the image of likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney and improved prospects for a second Obama term.

But if context is important — and it always is — I’d be cautious about jumping to conclusions on the basis of the most recent Hart-McInturff survey.

There is plenty of good news for Democrats in the recent poll.

Americans are more upbeat now, with 30 percent of respondents now saying the country is headed in the “right direction” and 61 percent saying the “wrong track.” That’s up from 22 percent right direction/69 percent wrong track in December and 19 percent right direction/73 percent wrong track in November.

Not surprising, given that trend, Obama’s job performance numbers have rebounded to 48 percent approval/46 percent disapproval from a low of 44 percent approval/51 disapproval in October and November.

Congress’ approval is down, with only 13 percent of respondents approving of its performance. That’s down from a 22 percent approval in February 2011. That should give Democrats a weapon to use in this year’s campaign.

The GOP brand is much worse than Democrats’.

Almost the same percentage of respondents had a favorable view of the Democratic Party (38 percent) as an unfavorable view (39 percent). On the other hand, they had a much less favorable view of the GOP (31 percent) and a much higher unfavorable opinion (44 percent) of that party.

I’ve always liked the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll’s wording on the generic Congressional ballot — respondents are asked whether they would like a Congress controlled by Republicans or Democrats — and the most recent survey shows Democrats with an advantage of 47 percent to 41 percent, a marked change from August, when Republicans held a 6-point advantage.

In the generic presidential ballot, Obama leads an unnamed Republican candidate, 47 percent to 42 percent, and he is ahead against Romney by a similar margin, 49 percent to 43 percent. Against former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Obama is well above 50 percent. (A Gallup poll conducted a few days after this one showed Obama and Romney tied at 48 percent.)

Romney’s standing has taken a particularly hard hit among independents, who see him less favorably than before and are more inclined to support the president against the former Massachusetts governor.

All of this is true and reflects a shift in opinion. But here is where context comes in.

This survey was conducted after the holiday break. Congress had been out of town, the president had largely been out of the headlines, and Americans spent much of the last month enjoying and then recovering from the holidays.

The only politics that Americans have seen recently is weeks of Republicans beating each other up in the presidential race.
Gingrich says how terrible Romney is. Santorum says how terrible Romney (and sometimes Gingrich) is. And Romney says how terrible Gingrich is. It’s the classic circular firing squad.
And after a month of Republicans assassinating Republicans, guess what? Polls find that the public at large has an increasingly poor impression of the Republican Party and GOP White House hopefuls. That’s not at all unusual.

Remember, of course, that all of this is occurring during a strengthening stock market, a drop in the unemployment rate and talk on television and in newspapers of an improving, albeit still sluggish, economy.

And yet, when you put some of the numbers in context, the situation is less clear. The new survey’s right direction/wrong track (30 percent/61 percent) isn’t much different than the result in the late October 2010 poll (31 percent/60 percent), when Republicans won a huge victory. Obama’s current job approval (48 percent) is only a single point better than it was in mid-October 2010 (47 percent).

Even more noteworthy, the current 6-point Democratic advantage on the generic ballot is only a little better than the party’s 2-point advantage in October 2010 and is far smaller than its 13-point advantage right before the 2008 elections.

But even if the economy doesn’t move one way or the other decisively, you can bet that the partisan argument will heat up again, putting the president back into focus and into the center of the political discussion.

And when the GOP race ends, probably well before the convention in August, voters will start to compare the two nominees across a large number of dimensions during a very spirited campaign.

I’d bet that only then will independents, who are more sensitive to short-term factors and the national mood, seriously consider the two nominees and decide how they will vote. And only then will we get a reliable handle on the shape of the electorate heading toward Election Day.