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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Unscientific vs. Scientific Assessments of What the American People Are Thinking

It’s difficult for any elected official to be confronted with evidence that he or she is not doing their job well. In similar fashion, it is difficult for football coaches to be confronted with a bad win-loss record. Or a CEO to be confronted with bad earnings data.

A common form of feedback presented to elected officials comes via polls -- scientific (and projectable) samplings of the people who elected the representatives.

Negative feedback via polls can come in the form of straightforward approval/disapproval ratings. Or opposition to policy decisions or initiatives made by the representative.

What happens when elected representatives are confronted by negative poll results? Quite typically, the representatives fall into a “I don’t make decisions based on polls” mode. The usual formulation is an argument that the elected official is doing “what’s right for the district/state/country” even if unpopular as measured by polls. Expressed differently, the elected representative in essence says that he or she knows what is right or best for the people, even if the people disagree. Or that the elected official has a better long-term vision for what’s right, and the people are short-sighted. Or variants thereof.

President Obama has recently been confronted by polling data drifting more to the negative. In addition, there is poll data suggesting less than majority support for the new healthcare reform legislation that has been a major part of the Obama policy agenda.

In response, Obama and his associates have moved into a fairly standard defense mode. I discussed comments about polls made by White House adviser David Axelrod here. And the reaction to polls by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs here.

More recently, we have the President’s interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer:

So on the big issues, I am going to keep on pushing not because I welcome controversy. The easiest thing for me to do -- the easiest thing for me to do, Diane, would be to go small bore, avoid controversy, just make sure that everybody's comfortable and we only propose things that don't threaten any special interests in Washington.

If you do that, then you can get a boost in the poll numbers but, ultimately, you're not solving problems that are vital to making sure the American dream continues for the next generation. And I don't want to look back on my time here and say to myself, all I was concerned about was nurturing my own popularity. That's not why I came.

Obama appears to assume here that the people of America who elected him are inherently short-sighted and focused on small, less consequential issues. Obama’s feeling is, apparently, that the public’s view of his actions in office are not highly relevant -- at least not in the short term. (Obama also mingles in his comment a reference to special interests, seemingly making the assertion that the public would want Obama to avoid threatening special interests. I'm not sure that's the case.)

But wait. Elsewhere in the Sawyer interview, Obama does, in fact, make copious references to what the people in the United States are doing and thinking: “. . . desperation that people are feeling who were one of the 7 million who lost jobs . . .I think there’s frustration and anger about why we can’t get this thing moving faster.” And “. . . the growing insecurity and anxiety of people . . .” , “I understand why the American people, their attitude is not ‘It could have been worse’. Their attitude is, ‘How do we make sure we keep on making it better’. . .”, “. . . the frustrations that people have about the process here in Washington . . .” , “the woman I met in Iowa . . . the small businessman in New Hampshire . . .” , “. . . I went to Ohio last week . . . you go and you talk to the workers there and you talk to the owners and then you go to the diner and you’re meeting people and talk to them . . .” and “Those are the things that people talk to me about.”

Obama obviously respects the views of the people “out there” across the country. He apparently feels that their views are important and relevant to his policy decisions. And that he takes them into account every day as he makes decisions.

This seems to be somewhat contradictory. Even as he talks disparagingly about polls, Obama willingly references the people, either generically, or by naming specific people he has met while making speeches or visits. People "OK." Polls "Not OK."

Yet Obama's chosen way of ascertaining what the people are thinking and feeling -- at least from what we can tell -- is quite unscientific. It’s great to talk with a “woman in Iowa” or a “businessman in New Hampshire” or a worker in Ohio. These one-on-ones provide valuable insights. But they are not, by any means, representative of all of the American people.

Polling, on the other hand, does provide a representative look at the people. Polling is no more than a scientific effort to assemble together in one place the views, attitudes, and feelings of all the people of the United States.

If scientific data assessing the views of the people are readily available, why not take advantage of them?

To be sure, the White House conducts and/or analyzes a lot of polling. As Anne E. Kornblut and Michael A. Fletcher stated in a recent The Washington Post piece on Obama's influences: “His political strategists conduct polling constantly.” Kornblut and Fletcher go on to say, however, “. . . but [the polling] has little discernible impact.”

Yet, Obama himself says that the views of the people he meets and his assumptions about what average people are thinking and feeling have a great deal of impact on his thinking. Apparently, however, not so much the thoughts and feelings of these people as measured through polls.

It may be that the President draws a line on the type of polling information he will use.  Perhaps he is ok with measuring the well-being and standard of daily living of the people through polls.  These in fact at the types of references to the people's views he makes in his Diane Sawyer interview.  It does not appear, however, that the President is as open to using polls to measure how the people evaluate the job he is doing, nor the people's views on policy issues. 


Eric Hadley-Ives said...
January 27, 2010 at 12:22 AM  

If polls ask simple questions they are sometimes not very valuable guides for policy. In the complex reality, there are many alternatives and implications for each alternative, and polls rarely ask people to choose among the many alternatives or consider their choices among the alternatives after being reminded of the implications or consequences of those alternatives. Questions about whether voters approve of "legislation for health care reform" probably don't ask us whether we favor the House bill or the Senate bill, or whether we favor a Republican reform over the existing bills, or favor more radical or liberal reforms that would be beyond the existing bills.
And how many voters are so well-informed about the alternatives that they could even explain what the House and Senate bills contain and why they favor or oppose one more than the other?

So long as polls ask simple and unsophisticated questions, they will generate results that aren't helpful to public debate. I oppose current health care reform bills because I want more radical changes, but given a choice between existing bills and nothing, I'll gladly take the House bill, and if that's impossible, I'll take the Senate bill over nothing. But if the question simply asks me if I'm happy about the reforms that are being approved in Congress I'll say "no, I'm frustrated." But realizing the opposition to the type of reforms I'd prefer, I'd settle for whatever we can get. Can your polls distinguish this sort of attitude from those who oppose health care reform because they have some ideological opposition to any regulation or cost controls?

Paul A. Thorn said...
January 27, 2010 at 1:10 AM  

The fundamental problem of interpreting polling data is that opinion polls are subjective by definition, but are often presented as if they represented an objective determination of the questions asked. For instance, questions such as, "is the President doing a good job", or "does the President understand the concerns of ordinary people", or "is the President doing enough to help ordinary people" tend to produce answers that depend not on objective information, such as economic data, but on perceptions that are based primarily on instinct or personal experience.

Most economists seem to agree that President Obama's economic stimulus and recovery plans have had a significant moderating effect on the recession, have prevented job losses from becoming much steeper, and that the economy appears to be in a recovery phase. Yet polling data suggests that the average American thinks the President isn't handling the economy very well. This seems to indicate that people's perceptions of the President's performance are based primarily on their personal circumstances, or factors unrelated to whether the President's policies have had a positive or negative effect on the economy.

One gets the impression that the same phenomenon has caused the President's approval rating to decline in other areas, such as health care reform, the war on terrorism, and international diplomacy. Looking at what the President has tried to accomplish in his first year, he seems to be making good and responsible decisions, but his approval numbers keep declining. The best explanation for this seems to be that the national economic malaise is affecting people's perceptions of all the President's policies.

The only obvious way to affect public perceptions in the short term would be to adopt popular but unwise measures, which could ultimately leave the economy and the country in worse shape than they are now. When poll numbers seem to be based more on emotion than logic, it seems quite appropriate for the President to disregard them, at least insofar as they go into shaping policy.

The opinions of individual Americans are important, insofar as they show what areas need attention and how people are being affected by current social and economic conditions. But it makes no sense to abandon fundamentally sound policies simply to sway public opinion in the short term. The President's job is to serve the country as best he can, not to earn high poll numbers. It's good to see that President Obama seems to be able to put these things in their proper perspective.

Anonymous said...
January 27, 2010 at 9:44 AM  

The author says "If scientific data assessing the views of the people are readily available, why not take advantage of them?". I wonder in what way you'd like elected officials to take advantage of polling data. I personally admire an elected official who is willing to do that he thinks is right even in the face of dissent from his "bosses" (i.e. the American people). I would rather the elected official "take advantage" of the poll by using it to see where differences exist between the people and himself and working to come to an understanding on those differences. The old quote of "We need to do a better job educating the people" when they disagree with policy may be appropriate here.

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