Polls, Press Releases and Partisanship: Let the Reader Beware

by Stuart Rothenberg March 26, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Nobody is under oath, so I suppose that it’s too much to expect “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” especially when it comes to press releases, headlines and even reputable pollsters.

But I was disappointed to see how some of the results of a March Public Opinion Strategies/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll of likely voters for National Public Radio were presented.

Yes, the two firms have very different partisan bents, but they collaborated on a national survey for NPR, a nonpartisan organization, so it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of analytical neutrality from both.

But if you only read about the NPR poll on the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Web site, you would have a seriously distorted view of the results of the survey.

“Latest NPR Poll: Democrats Besting Republicans in National Debate on Key Budget Issues” proclaimed the headline on the Democratic firm’s Web site.

The report on the Web site continued by saying the poll “shows [President] Barack Obama with high overall approval ratings and strong marks on handling the economy, but much more important, Democrats winning the big debates surrounding Obama’s first budget on taxes, energy, health care, and the deficit by significant margins.”

If you are looking for any bits of data that are more even-handed, you can find it in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner statement only if you have a powerful magnifying glass.

For example, “On both energy and health care the Democratic message wins by 53 [percent] to 42 percent, a margin nearly twice the Democrats’ 6-point partisan advantage.” So Democrats have only a 6-point advantage?

Or this: “President Obama’s approval rating remains strong. Nearly six-in-ten voters (59 percent) approve of the job President Obama is doing while just 35 percent disapprove.” Just 35 percent disapprove? That’s a surprisingly high number compared to other polls and given the euphoria implicit in the Greenberg analysis.

You would think that analysis of a survey examining the national political landscape might note prominently that the Democratic Party’s 6-point advantage in party identification was down from a 10-point advantage in May 2008, the last NPR poll, or holding steady from November, when the national exit poll showed the electorate as 39 percent Democratic and 32 percent Republican.

And, you might think that it’s worth noting that the Congressional generic ballot in the new NPR survey showed the parties deadlocked at 42 percent, a surprising reversal from Election Day, when Democrats had a substantial advantage in ID, especially given the public’s low opinion of the Republican Party.

And while I wouldn’t disagree with the characterization of Obama’s poll numbers as “strong,” NPR correspondent Mara Liasson’s observation that the president’s job approval is “down from the mid-60s” and “just about where the past 4 presidents have been at this point in their terms” put the numbers in a far more realistic context.

The cheerleading of the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner release is all the more obvious and misleading because the NPR poll came just one day after the release of a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press national poll headlined “Obama’s Approval Rating Slips Amid Division Over Economic Proposals.”

That Pew survey found Obama’s job approval had slipped from 64 percent in February to 59 percent in March, while his disapproval rating rose from 17 percent to 26 percent. (That’s not a seismic shift, but it’s enough to get almost anyone’s attention.) Pew’s analysis accompanying the poll also noted that “the public expresses mixed views of his many major proposals to fix the economy.”

When I went over to the Public Opinion Strategies Web site, I found a brief item on the poll. The piece was headlined “New NPR Poll Released.” No spin, no bias.

The first substantive paragraph on the poll results was merely a reprint from the NPR analysis, noting that Obama’s job ratings were “still high” and that among likely voters, “the Democratic position on issues was favored across the board.” “Still, there’s some reason for Republicans to hope,” ended the paragraph.

NPR’s more matter-of-fact reporting and analysis — and Public Opinion Strategies’ use of the NPR language — stands in stark (and welcome) contrast to Greenberg’s very partisan presentation.

But NPR can’t be left off the hook entirely. NPR headline writers attached a curious headline to the release: “NPR Poll: More Voters Think U.S. Is On Right Track.”

Huh? More voters think the country is on the right track than think that it is going off in the wrong direction? Or more voters now think the country is on the right track compared to what they thought in the previous NPR poll?

The NPR story makes it clear that 63 percent still think the country is on the wrong track, so the improvement in sentiment is modest. And with a popular new president in the White House and Democrats talking constantly about change, wouldn’t you think that the “right direction” number would be higher than 31 percent?

There are plenty of polls floating around and more analysis than anyone could ever need. But partisan analysis isn’t analysis at all. It’s message.