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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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance: Public Opinion and Pending Healthcare Legislation

A reporter called and asked about healthcare reform legislation: “Is this the largest and most significant public policy legislation that has been passed by Congress over the wishes of the American people?”

I answered that I didn’t know for sure. We don't have good survey results for every piece of legislation throughout U.S. history.

We do know that less than half of all Americans favor Congress passing a new healthcare reform bill at this point in history. This conclusion is based on every recent poll that I am aware of. That includes a couple (see here and here) just released this week.

Politicians have a curious relationship to polls. Politicians will often cite polls when the results support their position on an issue. Politicians will deride polls when they signify public opposition to their position. In this situation, public opinion as measured by polls is not highly compatible with the positive spin put on the healthcare bill by Democratic leaders and President Obama. So it is not surprising to find these -- and others on the "pro" side of the bill -- dismissing or criticizing public opinion

Friday, December 18, 2009

Obama's Job Approval Rating in Historical Context

Former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove published a piece about President Obama in The Wall Street Journal this week. It was not surprisingly quite negative. Rove was reacting to Obama’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, during which the president gave himself a B+ grade for his first year in office. (Actually a “solid” B+.)

Rove took issue with Obama's self-grading. As would be expected.

But what caught my eye was Rove’s assertion in the piece that: “Barack Obama has won a place in history with the worst ratings of any president at the end of his first year: 49% approve and 46% disapprove of his job performance in the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll.”

There are several issues here as I ponder Rove’s evocation of Gallup poll data in this historical context.

First, the historical record. Gerald Ford ended up his first year in office, 1974, with a 42% approval rating (Gallup Poll, Dec. 6-9, 1974). This is the lowest job approval rating to date of any president since WWII at the end of his first year.

Of course, Ford was not elected in 1974. He ascended to the Oval Office in August of that year when Richard Nixon resigned. So should it count, or not? I would probably tilt towards leaving it out of most comparisons. It's an entirely different dynamic when a president reaches office suddenly upon the death (Truman, LBJ) or resignation (Ford) of a president rather than having been elected.

All right, then. What about elected presidents? Ronald Reagan had a 49% job approval rating in Gallup's Dec. 11-14, 1981 poll. This was the lowest "end of first year" rating of all presidents between Harry Truman and George W. Bush.

So, taking the Dec. 11-13 USA Today/Gallup poll as our benchmark, and leaving out Gerald Ford, we can see that Obama's approval rating was tied with Reagan's -- in that poll.

However. Examining Rove’s statement carefully, I note that he uses the plural “worst ratings.” I think what Rove is doing here is taking into account the disapproval side of the equation. Reagan’s Dec. 11-14, 1981 poll had Reagan with that 49% approval but also with a 41% disapproval rating. This 41% is indeed lower than Obama’s 46% disapproval rating in the Dec. 11-13 poll. (One of the reasons for this is that most presidential job approval ratings in the “olden” days had higher “don’t knows.” Among other reasons, this could reflect the fact that interviews were conducted in person, as opposed to today’s telephone interviews.)

But, Gallup generally looks just at the approval ratings when putting ratings into historical context. We typically don’t take into account disapproval ratings. Thus, we would say that Obama’s Dec. 11-13 poll approval rating (singular) was tied with the previous low for an elected president.

A second point. In addition to our traditional “stand alone” polls, Gallup now has our ongoing tracking research.

The USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Dec. 11-13, is thus not the final word on Obama’s ratings “at the end of his first year.” Our final three-day tracking average will be out just before the New Year. We have no idea, at this point, what it will show. We do know that in our tracking as of Friday, Dec. 18, Obama’s approval rating is at 52%. So, it’s entirely possible that Gallup’s final read on Obama’s approval “at the end of his first year” will be above Reagan’s 49%. We’ll have to wait and see.

Bottom line here: Rove’s conclusion about Obama's final rating in his first year is premature. We'll check back in on this at the beginning of 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Steve Kroft, 60 Minutes, Barack Obama and Polls

President Obama was on the CBS program 60 Minutes this past Sunday night, interviewed in the Map Room at the White House by Steve Kroft. Much of the interview dealt with Afghanistan. At one point, we saw the following exchange:

Most Americans right now don't believe this war is worth fighting. And most of the people in your party don't believe this is a war worth fighting.


Why did you go ahead?

Because I think it's the right thing to do. And that's my job. If I was worried about what polled well -- there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn't have done this year.

I'm puzzling over the evidence base for Kroft's statement that “most Americans right now don’t believe this war is worth fighting.”

Kroft’s own CBS News/New York Times poll from Dec. 4-8 asked Americans: “Do you think the U.S. is doing the right thing by fighting the war in Afghanistan now, or should the U.S. not be involved in Afghanistan now?” The answer: 49% said “right thing”, 39% not be involved.

This particular question does not provide a ringing endorsement of the war. But certainly a plurality appear to support it. This does not appear to fit with the statement that “Most Americans right now don’t believe this war is worth fighting.”

In that same CBS News/New York Times poll, 51% of Americans approve Obama’s plan “. . . that an additional 30,000 troops will be sent to Afghanistan in the coming months.” Forty-three percent disapprove. Here again, at least a plurality seem to be on board with what Obama is doing.

In a recent Gallup poll conducted after Obama’s West Point speech, 62% of Americans say that sending troops to Afghanistan was the right thing for the U.S. to do. Gallup’s classic “mistake” question shows that 60% say that it was not a mistake to send military forces to Afghanistan.

There are, I should point out, some questions asked in other ways that do show a tilt against the war. The latest CNN/Opinion Research poll (Dec. 2-3) shows a rough split, 46% to 51% when Americans are asked if they favor or oppose the war in Afghanistan. (This represented, however, a shift from CNN's late October, early November poll in which the ratio was 40% favor and 58% oppose). Going back in time, an ABC News/Washington Post poll phrased thus, “All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, or not” found a 44% yes and 52% no result. This question, however, was from Nov. 12-15, before Obama's surge announcement. It also explicitly reminded Americans of the costs involved.

Overall, Obama’s current position on sending more troops to Afghanistan and thus continuing the war does not enjoy an overwhelming mandate. But most recent polls show more support than opposition. It seems to me that Kroft clearly overstated the evidence available from the preponderance of current data in the preamble to his interrogatory to Obama about the war.

Obama was not well enough equipped with the latest poll data to be able to refute Kroft's premise. Instead, the president dropped back to a more typical defense: “If I was worried about what polled well -- there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn't have done this year.”

If this type of statement sounds familiar, it's because we heard it often from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These two early and often reiterated their disdain for those who would govern by paying attention to polls.

As reflected by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' statements last week, we may be seeing some building defensiveness within the walls of the White House. Reminds me of a head football coach who gets testy when reporters keep badgering him about his win-loss record or when he doesn't like the things they write. Administrations can be just as irritable.

Let me point out -- again -- that polls do nothing more than represent the American people’s views and beliefs. Thus, President Obama was, in essence, saying: “If I was worried about what the American people thought -- there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn’t have done this year.”

Many leaders in Obama’s position convince themselves that while they have the best interests of the American people at heart, they basically know better than the public what should be done. This is a fairly standard approach to representative democracy, exemplified by Edmund Burke’s famous quote: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Americans themselves don't seem to agree. Seventy-three percent say they have a great deal/fair amount of trust in the “American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country.” Sixty-one percent say they have a great deal/fair amount in the executive branch headed by the president. (A much smaller 45% say they have a great deal/fair amount of confidence in the legislative branch, “consisting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.”)

So the people have more trust and confidence in their own ability to make judgments about the issues facing the country than they do in the president. I think they would like their leaders to pay attention to what they think and believe.

Actually, the president is doing OK when it comes to being in touch with public opinion in terms of Afghanistan right now -- as we have seen.

His recent efforts on the economy/job front are clearly in line with Americans’ priorities.

We also now have a majority of Americans who favor the U.S. being involved in a climate change treaty. (So, when Obama flies to Copenhagen this week he will be on track if he agrees with the need for such a treaty.)

Obama is more out of sync when it come to his push for major healthcare reform. Less than half of Americans say they want a new healthcare plan.

President Obama recently held a “jobs forum” to hear from a wide variety of CEOs, experts, and others. He then flew to Allentown, Pa., so that he could “take the temperature” of the common people of that town.

As I’ve noted, all of this is exemplary. But unscientific. Why not in the same exact sense spend a day pouring over public opinion research data? No difference in concept from a jobs forum or from a trip to Allentown. But a lot of difference in the quality of data provided. (Unfortunately, video of the president pouring over polling data is not quite as attention-getting as shaking hands with workers at Allentown Metal Works.)

There is little doubt that the White House, in reality, actually does pay a lot of attention to public opinion research. When it comes to public pronouncements, I hate to see the president dropping back on to the old mantra that he doesn’t pay attention to polls.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Afghanistan, Oslo, and Extramarital Affairs

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel opined about “public support” following President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last week:

Mr. Obama missed the opportunity to rally public support and to invest the more responsible wing of his party in his Afghan surge -- in the process granting himself cover to see his strategy through to the end. As missed opportunities go, this was big.

I’m not sure about Strassel’s basis for the conclusion that Obama “missed the opportunity” to rally public support. If anything, the available data suggest that, in fact, Obama has managed to develop public support for his policies in Afghanistan.

Our post-speech Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans (51%) supported his newly announced policy. That may not be a rally. But it does look like an increase in support compared to previous polls. And he did manage to generate support from both Democrats and Republicans -- not the usual state of affairs.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll found 64% favoring the president’s plan. (One should take into account the wording of the CNN question, which is a trend from an earlier CNN/USA Today/Gallup question asked about Iraq. The question doesn't mention the timetable, and gives the respondents an explicit reason to support the plan. Here's the wording: "Regardless of how you feel about the war in general, do you favor or oppose President Obama's plan to send about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize the situation there?" )

There's more. A poll from The New York Times/CBS News that just came out finds 51% support the president's plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This question, like the CNN question, doesn't mention a timetable. But it also doesn't give respondents an explicit rationale for sending in more troops. (Here's the NYT/CBS wording: "As you may know, Barack Obama announced that an additional 30,000 U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan in the coming months. Do you approve or disapprove of sending additional troops to Afghanistan?") And still another poll conducted by Quinnipiac found that 58% of Americans support President Obama’s “decision to send in 30,000 troops."

Bottom line: At least a majority of Americans appear, at this point, to support Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, I'm asked about the reaction of the American public to President Obama's speech and acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Pundits and other public observers have already begun weighing in. I told a reporter recently that sometimes we are surprised at how things play out. We do know that well under half of Americans think that Obama deserved the Peace Prize (a result recently replicated in a Quinnipiac poll). About half of Americans in our Gallup poll said that they were personally glad that he received it.

Still, let's see what happens. Our Gallup Daily tracking of presidential job approval has been offline for two nights, in part because of a blizzard in the Midwest. We'll begin to get a picture over the next few days of any possible impact of this event on Obama's job approval rating.

There have been more examples in the press recently of presumed extramarital affairs. Of course, in case you missed it, there’s Tiger Woods. We don’t know for absolute sure that Woods had an affair. All we have is his statement that he “...let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves.” Plus reports of an, apparently, ever-increasing number of women other than his wife have been linked to Tiger.

There's Sen. Max Baucus from the state of Montana who is quite open about living together with his significant other without being married. (The Baucus issue has come to light because his romantic partner was nominated to be a U.S. attorney). A Baucus representative said that the affair began after Baucus was separated from his wife. Other U.S. senators, such as Nevada’s John Ensign and Louisiana’s David Vitter have been implicated in news stories about straying from the marital bed. Not to mention governors such as New York’s Eliot Spitzer and South Carolina’s Mark Sanford.

At any rate, all of this publicity makes it a good time to reiterate our consistent findings that the the American people -- even in this day and age -- continue to think extramarital affairs are morally wrong. This is not to say that Americans don’t recognize that extramarital affairs take place (although probably at a much lower level than they think. The best scientific evidence puts the incidence at 15-18% of married adults who have ever had an affair.) At any rate, over 9 out of 10 Americans steadfastly say that affairs are morally unacceptable, about the same as say this about polygamy.

Speaking of members of Congress and senators. Both of these professions have scored near the bottom of the list when we ask Americans to rate professions on the basis of their honesty and ethics. Members of Congress and senators are down next to car salespeople, lawyers, HMO managers, and stock brokers. State governors don't do well, either. A radio interviewer asked me why these ratings are so low. There are potentially many reasons why the public is so negative about the honesty and ethics of their elected representatives. But certainly the continuing news stories of these representatives having affairs can't help their image.

On a different note, many senators are apparently planning to cancel their Christmas vacations in order to continue to work on the healthcare bill. As The New York Times reports about one such instance: "Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said Wednesday that he and his wife had given up on making it back home for Christmas."

No doubt many of these senators believe that they deserve the approbation of their constituents back home for their sacrifices and hard work. One problem. The legislation being labored over so diligently is not exactly something Americans are desperate to have passed. One new poll showed only a little more than one-third of Americans now favor the idea of a new healthcare reform bill. Our latest Gallup poll showed 44% approving. We're updating our measure this weekend. Check back next week for the results.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Value of Daily Tracking

It’s not unusual for politicians to react to polls. I’ve certainly seen it many times over the years, particularly when elected representatives or candidates are confronted with poll results they don’t like.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked Tuesday about Gallup Daily poll results showing a drop in President Obama’s job approval rating. According to news reports, Gibbs responded with some critical remarks and unusual analogies.

I’m certain Gibbs didn’t intend to impugn the value of presidential job approval polls in general. It appears he was reacting more to the fact that the president’s approval numbers are not stable, but, in fact, in a period of some change. More specifically, Gibbs was reacting to our report Monday highlighting the fact that, while there was a short-term positive uptick in Obama’s job approval ratings after his Afghanistan speech last week, his ratings through the weekend fell back.

But this type of movement is the nature of the beast. Gibbs said that if Gallup were his EKG, he would visit his doctor. Well, I think the doctor might ask him what’s going on in his life that would cause his EKG to be fluctuating so much. There is, in fact, a lot going on at the moment -- the healthcare bill, the jobs summit, the Copenhagen Climate Conference, and Afghanistan.

We live in a representative democracy. Our politicians are accountable to the people. Certainly the accountability that matters most is on Election Day. But keeping tabs on the people’s views of their elected representatives between elections is vitally important – and something in which the people of the country are demonstrably interested. We at Gallup are fortunate to have the capability to interview random samples of Americans on a daily basis. This helps us closely monitor the ways in which presidential actions are being received by the national constituency.

Of course, it's not just Gallup that finds this important. I’m sure the White House was just as interested as we were in how the president’s major speech at West Point last week played to the American public. Our tracking helped provide the answer.

Obama is set to travel to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The White House is probably just as interested as we are in how the American public is going to react to this event. Our tracking will give us the answer -- both in the short-term and in the long-term. (And I’m sure the Obama campaign in 2008 paid a great deal of attention to their own tracking polls measuring how his candidacy was doing as the events of the campaign rocketed across the news each day.)

The foundation of the tracking poll is state-of-the-art, sound scientific sampling methodology, as is the same with all of our Gallup polling. Gallup reports presidential job approval using a three-day rolling average. Users are, of course, free to make whatever use they would like of the daily tracking information. The same pertains to their use of daily stock market reports, daily Nielsen ratings of television shows, or any other frequent measure.

For those interested in trends over a longer period than the three-day average reported daily, Gallup aggregates job approval on a weekly basis and reports weekly demographic breakouts.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Busy Times for the People's Chief Executive

President Obama, the people's Chief Executive, recently has been or will be involved with four issues of significance to those who elected him.

First, the ongoing debate on healthcare reform. Second, the newly announced policy in Afghanistan. Third, the White House jobs summit held Thursday. Fourth, the Copenhagen summit on the climate to which Obama will travel on Dec. 18.

From Americans’ perspective, it is the third of these that is most important. Americans believe that jobs and the economy remain the top problems facing the U.S.

I’ve been looking through news reports of the White House jobs summit. These give us a sense of some of the ideas that percolated from the sessions. These include weatherization, small-business incentives, regulatory and other help for exporters, tax credits (Washington Post); easing immigration policies for tourists, more support for small businesses, changes in trade policies, lowering the corporate tax rate (USA Today); lower corporate tax rate, create more government jobs, build new community schools in rural areas, tax incentives for job creation, improving the credit markets, using community colleges as training centers for employers (Politico).

We don't yet have a public tally or explicit list of the results of the conference from the White House. Jesse Lee, the official blog director at the White House, informs us that, “It was an intensive afternoon at the Jobs and Economic Growth Forum.” The president spoke at length with the participants to hear their ideas and “. . . these ideas will be evaluated carefully within the White House.” (Lee informs those interested that they can hold their own community jobs forum.)

It now appears that President Obama will make a speech on jobs this coming Tuesday. We presume that in this speech the president will lay out some of what was learned at the forum -- and perhaps from the citizens of Allentown, Pa., where Obama spent time on Friday.

We know what the public thinks are the best ways to create jobs. We asked them. Here are the top 10 responses:
  1. Keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
  2. Lower taxes
  3. Help small businesses
  4. Create more infrastructure work
  5. Reduce government regulation/involvement
  6. Create more “green” jobs
  7. Provide more “stimulus” money; Higher takes on imports/Buy American
  8. Improve education; Hire more U.S. citizens/Stop hiring illegal aliens; cut government spending/Reduce the deficit
  9. Make more credit available/Make it easier to get loans
  10. Improve the economy over; Encourage more spending

Meanwhile, back to issue two -- Afghanistan. Despite the usual back-and-forth reaction, Obama's new policy has the support of a slight majority of Americans.

As I pointed out in this Dec. 3 story, the president enjoys a unique situation in which a majority of Democrats and Republicans support his Afghan strategy. (He has lower support among independents.) Democrats have been critical of the idea of increasing troops. News reports highlight the liberal worry over Obama’s new policy. Yet 58% of Democrats support the policy (as described in the Gallup question wording). Certainly this level of support from rank-and-file Democrats is lower than support on many of his other policies from his own party. But it is a majority. (Earlier polling showed that well under half of Democrats favored increasing troops in Afghanistan generically.) And, for Obama to get majority support from Republicans on any policy issue is certainly an unusual situation.

Issue one? The healthcare debate rages on in the Senate while a skeptical public waits. I just reviewed a series of polls conducted in the past month. Each asked about the healthcare reform bill in a different way. In none of these did half or more approve. It probably no longer matters. At this point Obama and the Democratic and House leaders are so far down the tracks with the healthcare reform train that public opinion is not going to derail them -- no matter what it shows.

Issue four? Climate change is not Americans’ top priority. Many of our Gallup measures on global warming have been showing less concern, rather than more. A recent Pew Research Center poll found the same thing. Quite dramatically. This is in and of itself a fascinating phenomenon. Something is going on here. Why has the percentage of Americans believing in global warming been going down rather than up? We just don't know for sure. Now, we have “Climategate.” Some who are focusing on Climategate will argue that the public was ahead of its time. Some obviously would not.

What’s ahead for the people’s elected chief executive? He's off to Oslo, Norway next week to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps aware of the imagery that will emanate from Oslo -- Obama in white tie and tails getting his medal -- his advisors have scheduled the aforementioned jobs speech just before he leaves. Announcing a change of plans, the White House now says that the President will go to Copenhagen for the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Dec. 18, rather than on his way to Olso on Dec. 9th as previously scheduled.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The American People's Input on Afghanistan

President Obama will speak to the nation about Afghanistan on Tuesday night -- before an audience of U.S. Military Academy cadets at West Point. He will reportedly announce a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan in the context of a broader overall strategy for that region of the world.

In the process of reaching these decisions, Obama has sought and listened to the advice of many experts, civilian and military. Nonetheless, Obama already faces criticism from politicians on both the right and left.

Will he face criticism from the average American? To answer that question, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. The average American believes that things aren't going well in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of Americans say that things are going badly. This is the worst evaluation of the Afghan involvement to date. It is quite a bit worse than the last evaluation we have of U.S. progress in Iraq. Thus, Obama would do well to acknowledge upfront that he realizes there are significant problems with the current situation for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

2. At the same time, Americans continue to support the basic concept of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Only 36% say it was a mistake for the U.S. to have become involved in that country. That's way lower than the 58% who say Iraq was a mistake for the U.S. Thus, Obama has the luxury of knowing that the average American remains positive about the U.S. decision to get involved in Afghanistan (at least as measured by Gallup's classic "mistake" question). Obama can expect support from the public from his expected decision to stay the course in Afghanistan.

3. The president faces a big challenge in convincing the American public that sending new troops to Afghanistan is the right thing to do. Support for sending more troops has increased over the last several weeks, which is good news for Obama. The not-so-good news is that, even with the recent shift, less than half of Americans would tell Obama to send in more troops. The rest either say that he should begin withdrawing troops, or keep the troop level as it is.

4. Obama's greatest challenge, perhaps, will be justifying the cost of increased involvement in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is not the average American's highest priority. Americans are much more likely to say the economy, jobs, and healthcare are the most important problems facing the country. In fact, more Americans say that the federal budget deficit is the most important problem than mention Afghanistan. This underscores the fundamental point. The public is concerned about government spending. Sending more troops to Afghanistan is going to be very costly. Obama will do well to spend time not only justifying these costs, but telling Americans where the money will come from.

In summary: If President Obama addresses the thoughts, opinions, and concerns of the American people in his address on Afghanistan, he will:

  • Acknowledge that things are going badly for U.S.
  • Reinforce the basic purpose of being involved in Afghanistan.
  • Justify why sending more troops is necessary.
  • Address issues of cost and how the escalation is going to be paid for.

Doing the Math on Obama's Job Approval Rating

A couple of readers have asked about the math in my colleague Jeff Jones' recent analysis of race differences in President Obama's job approval rating. In the story, Jeff points out that Obama's overall approval rating is 49%, while his approval among whites is 39% and among nonwhites is 73%.

The readers have apparently taken the sample sizes for whites and nonwhites given in the "Survey Methods" box at the end of story, multiplied these Ns by the group's respective approval ratings and calculated an average. The results give an average approval rating lower than the actual 49%.

The sample sizes given at the end of the article are the actual unweighted Ns for each group. The reported results, as is the case for almost all national polls done by Gallup and others, are based on weighted results, which take into account sampling variations as compared to U.S. census estimates. Because nonwhites are usually underrepresented in national samples, the final results weighted by U.S. census parameters will give the nonwhites a higher weighted representation and the whites a lower weighted representation. The weighted N for whites is 2,606, and for nonwhites 1,014. Doing the math on these weighted Ns yields the 49% overall approval rating.

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