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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 10 Intriguing Poll Findings of the Year

As the year (and the decade) winds down, herewith is a Top 10 list focusing on intriguing findings of the past year relating to public opinion. I spent a good deal of my waking hours looking at/analyzing/contemplating poll results. Some attract more of my attention than others. What follows are those that -- for me at least -- have a combination of high interest and at least some importance.

Why put them in a Top 10 list format? Click here if you want some good answers to that question. Also, while these are 10 intriguing results, they are not necessarily the most significant. Just ones that have lingered in my consciousness as the year has progressed.

1. Barack Obama ends the year with job approval ratings right around 50%. This is roughly where Clinton and Reagan were after their first years. Obama is well below where both Presidents Bush were at the end of their first years. He is also below where Jimmy Carter was at the end of his first year in office.

Obama will, however, almost certainly not end the year with the lowest “end of first year” job approval ratings in poll history. Gallup’s final job approval reading for Obama will be published at 1:00 pm ET Thursday, New Year’s Eve. Unless Obama takes a big nose dive in our Wednesday night reading, his final average will be above 49%. Forty-nine percent was the final poll reading for Ronald Reagan in 1981, heretofore the lowest end of first year rating for an elected president in Gallup history. Thus, it does not appear, as some have asserted, that Obama will have the “worst” ratings at the end of his first year in history.

Both Reagan and Clinton were re-elected. Bush, Sr. was not re-elected. Neither was Jimmy Carter. The point? Obama’s job approval rating at the end of his first year tells us little about his future.

2. Americans continue to have a high degree of faith in themselves. Seventy-three percent of Americans have a great deal/fair amount of trust and confidence in “the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing the country.” The American people, in fact, have more faith in themselves than they do in many of the people they elect to represent them. Not everyone agrees. The Obama administration, for example, has recently fallen into a predictable pattern of downgrading the importance of the wisdom of the American people. At least when it comes to healthcare reform.

3. This leads me to Number 3. The public ends the year with a substantial degree of skepticism about a new healthcare reform bill. Less than half of Americans in most November and December polls say “yes” to such a bill. Despite this grassroots opposition, the House and Senate almost certainly will work their way to a final “yes” on a healthcare reform bill sometime in the next month. President Obama will sign the bill. He will label it a major step forward for the American people. Thus will begin an important experiment. Those in favor of the bill say that the public is misinformed. And that the American people will come to love and appreciate the new bill once they behold its beneficial impact. We will be able to see if that is in fact the case in the months and years ahead.

4. Number 3 may help explain Number 4. Americans have less faith in their elected representatives than ever before. Remember I told you (see Number 2) that 73% of Americans have trust and confidence in themselves when it comes to major policy issues and governance? Well, compare that to the 45% who have trust and confidence in the legislative branch of our government. That’s the lowest such rating in Gallup history. Trust in the legislative branch was at 65% in 2001. What a drop! A major story of the decade. Declining faith and confidence in the 535 men and women sent to the District of Columbia to represent the people’s wishes. Not to pile it on here, but it should be noted that the honesty and ethics ratings for members of Congress this year are at 9%. Car salespeople were at 6% in the same poll. By way of comparison, 83% of Americans have confidence in nurses.

5. Americans are increasingly positive about the U.S. economy as the year ends. There is no doubt that the economy reigns as the top problem facing the country. But not quite so dominantly as when the year began. In February of this year, 86% of Americans mentioned some type of economic concern as the nation’s top problem. Now, in December, that percentage is at 55%. Still high. But lower.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index ends the year at about -20. Note the minus sign. That means things are still not doing so well on an absolute basis. But at the beginning of the year this index was in -50 range. Routinely. So again, evidence that Americans' economic psyche has improved as the year has progressed.

6. Two gentlemen -- Tiger Woods and John Edwards -- this year saw their favorable ratings fall as far as anyone in our Gallup history. This fact of life does not have tremendous significance for the future of the planet and civilization as we know it, one might argue. But I have included it here because it shows how quickly one can fall in the eyes of the American public. Tiger Woods’ fall from grace is by far the largest drop in Gallup history. The golfer went from a 85% favorable rating in June 2005 to a 33% rating in December 2009. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and former vice-presidential candidate, went from 48% in January 2008 to 21% in October 2009 -- the second biggest poll-to-poll drop in Gallup history.

7. Americans are no more alarmed about global warming in recent years than they were earlier in the decade. Americans are more likely than ever to say that accounts of global warming are exaggerated. Fewer than at any time since '04 say that global warming has already begun. Very few -- 3% -- say that global warming -- or for that matter any environmental issue -- is the nation’s top problem. This is an intriguing finding because it shows the limits of organized campaigns to shift public opinion. Many have labored at an incredibly extensive effort to raise public consciousness regarding climate change. The payoff from these efforts in terms of public opinion has not been great -- at least at this point in time.

8. Speaking of public opinion and science, we have the case of women essentially rejecting new government-sponsored, scientific guidelines on mammograms. A great deal of effort went into an extraordinary review of the scientific literature on the benefits and downsides of frequent mammograms. The result: the promulgation of new guidelines. Within days, Gallup polling picked up a huge roar of disapproval from women across America. The guidelines called for no mammograms before the age of 50. Eighty-four percent of women 35-49 said they would continue to have mammograms regardless. The majority of women dismissed the guidelines as attempts to save money.

These data are intriguing because they give us an early warning of possible healthcare controversy ahead. Much of the effort to fight healthcare costs in the future will focus on convincing Americans to -- seemingly paradoxically -- have fewer tests and procedures and to stay away from the medical system. It appears that this approach to cutting costs may not be readily accepted by the at least some Americans.

9. This leads us to Number 9. Americans have become wary of the influence of government in society. At a time when government is gaining more influence in society. A majority of Americans -- some 57% -- say that government is trying to do too much that should be left to business and industry. This is one of the highest such percentages in Gallup history. Almost as many say there is too much government regulation of business and industry as say there is too little.

This portends a looming conflict ahead between those who say that government is the most effective instrument for solving the nation’s problems, and those who say that government is itself one of the nation’s biggest problems.

10. The rise of Alaskan Sarah Palin. Every four years we are provided with a vice presidential candidate who has lost an election. A few of these losers manage to stay in the public spotlight (Al Gore [NOTE: Al Gore actually won twice as vice-president; he lost as a presidential candidate]), although sometimes for reasons that aren’t exactly what they would have expected (John Edwards). Many drop off the public radar (Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Lloyd Bentsen, Geraldine Ferraro, William Miller).

Last year’s vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, has clearly become one of the winningest veep losers. At least among Republicans. Palin is the runaway winner when Republicans were asked by Gallup this month to name the living woman they most admire. Her favorable rating among Republicans is a robust 79%. In one poll in November, Palin was the leader for the 2012 race among Republicans. Her book remains the number one hardcover best seller on The New York Times best seller list.

Will Palin’s fame and fortune last? We do not know. 2012 is a long way away. But what we do know as the year ends is that this fascinating woman has jumped from literally no visibility whatsoever on the average American’s radar screen to one of the country’s most visible politicians of either gender.


Anonymous said...
December 30, 2009 at 1:48 PM  

You think Sarah Palin is big now.. Just wait until the effects of Obamanomics and Obamacare really set in for the average American.
Get accustomed to say the words President Palin and Madame President.

Anonymous said...
December 30, 2009 at 2:01 PM  

Just want to point out that Al Gore lost as a presidential candidate, not as a vice-presidential candidate. In fact (believe it or not) he won both times he ran for vice-president, and actually served as vice-president of the US for eight years. He then ran for president, and the election was so close that we had to wait for nearly two months to find out who our next president would be.

Funny how quickly we forget details like that.

Bill Carpenter Sr. Auburn,CA said...
December 30, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

Yep, Sarah Palin’s fame and fortune will last. The American people made one of the biggest mistakes in our history. We don't always get it right the first time but we are really good at do-overs and I predict Sarah will be our firt Lady president in 2012

Anonymous said...
December 30, 2009 at 4:42 PM  

Palin was right about Obama. She's even right today on the issues she talks about. Left will attack her elsewhere outside the issues cause they have nothing on her.

Anonymous said...
December 31, 2009 at 11:49 AM  

Obamacare will be like that great line from National Lampoon's Vacation: "You think you hate it now but wait until you drive it."

Anonymous said...
December 31, 2009 at 1:54 PM  

I am a Sara Palin fan but have not been sure about her being President. I just finished her book and now believe that a woman president is the only president that can make the changes we need to dismantle the Liberal agenda. The liberal press will distroy any man who tries.

Who better to be the first woman president that Sara Palin?

Annie Linn said...
January 2, 2010 at 1:10 PM  

This is an interesting list of polling data and national opinion trends.

It is a compendium of some very confusing opinions in the areas of:

* climate change (U.S. pollees are less worried about climate change, even as the planet continues to heat up)

*government intervention (pollees want less, a year after the world economy is looted by an unregulated U.S. big business sector)

*Obama and Palin (the latter is popular even though she is often inaccurate and retro --"drill baby drill" - although I have to admit she is likeable, something Obama isn't

* American positivism (even in the face of increasing international opposition to our military and economic policies)

* opposition to health care reform and even statistical approaches to unneccesary tests and procedures (hard to fathom the depths of how hard it is to change what we are used to, even if what we are used to is dangerous, inefficient, and/or unnecessary!)

* polticians (we hate 'em but reelect them anyway)

* and last but not least, antipathy towards formerly popular philanderers who we lionized for their, well, sexy, handsomeness.

It seems like U.S. values are a little mixed up.

Thank you Frank and your staff for your insights and links in this article.

Bruce Seward said...
January 12, 2010 at 9:01 AM  

Regarding the low approval ratings of Congress, I would like to see Gallup design a poll to determine public interest in term limits. For example, a total of 12 years. Incumbents exceeding that limit could serve one more term if relected after the effective date of enactment.
Providing this information would be a true public service.

Anonymous said...
January 13, 2010 at 10:13 PM  

It is totally irrelevant as to how intelligent Sara Palin is at this point in time. The fact remains that if this current administrations is any indication of genius we are truly in trouble as a country. With all the corruption going on in Washington presently and the amount of debt, flagrant spending and the costs of health care if they succeed this nation will be more than ready to have someone in the WhiteHouse that is not speaking out of two sides of their mouths.

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