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Friday, January 29, 2010

Public Opinion, Healthcare, the President's SOTU Address

It's worth noting that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs this week explicitly evoked polling to bolster a point about healthcare reform.

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I don't want to go through the entire speech. Look, I think that what the President discussed yesterday about this, and I think what you heard people say over the weekend from administration officials on the Sunday shows, was if you look at -- there's clearly a caricature of a health reform bill that is viewed differently by the public than when you break out its component parts. Right? The Kaiser Foundation did a poll that showed, for instance, the number of people that are more likely to support healthcare reform if they knew tax credits were in there for small businesses is 73 percent; 62 percent of those polled that opposed healthcare reform would be more likely to support it if they knew that was in there.

This has become -- the example I use a lot is we spent a lot of time talking about so-called death panels, right, that time after time after time after time have been disproven that are in the bill. So obviously the legislation became a caricature of its component parts. The degree that that's a communications failing, I think people here at the White House and others would certainly take responsibility for that.

It’s certainly good to see that Americans’ opinions as measured by polls are part of the discussion at the White House.

Note Gibb’s reference to administration officials’ comments over the weekend on the Sunday shows. This is a fairly direct reference to the common practice of distributing talking points to those who speak on behalf of an administration. In this instance, the talking points dealt with the White House strategy on handling opposition to healthcare reform legislation. The apparently approved response: Assume that opposition is based on the messy process of developing the legislation or the failure to understand what is included in the bill. In other words, the public's view of the legislation is a caricature of the actual bill.

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.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Obama’s Attack on Big Banks

President Obama’s administration has turned its focus to the issue of increased regulation of big banks. Adopting a combative tone, Obama says about banks: "So if these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have."

The president’s proposed course of action would limit the scope of what banks could invest in (“The President and his economic team will work with Congress to ensure that no bank or financial institution that contains a bank will own, invest in or sponsor a hedge fund or a private equity fund, or proprietary trading operations unrelated to serving customers for its own profit.”), and would limit the size of banks (“The President also announced a new proposal to limit the consolidation of our financial sector. The President’s proposal will place broader limits on the excessive growth of the market share of liabilities at the largest financial firms, to supplement existing caps on the market share of deposits.”).

One does not have to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to assume this new presidential emphasis has political overtones. (One probably does not go wrong in assuming that most actions taken by elected representatives in Washington have political overtones.)

In this instance, it is a reasonably safe assumption that Obama’s advisers were eager to divert attention from things like the Massachusetts senate race. And to take advantage of what was perceived to be a populist anger out among the populace. It's also reasonable to assume that Obama's team reviewed available poll evidence before taking the anti-bank actions.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Role of Polls in Massachusetts

The run-up to today’s Massachusetts special Senate election has been dominated by pre-election polls. The race is being held to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat. (Although Republican candidate Scott Brown is quick to point out that it is not Kennedy’s seat, but the “people’s” seat”.) Kennedy was a Democrat. No Republican has been elected to the Senate from the Bay State since 1972. Therefore, it was assumed that the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, would sail to victory.

Initial pre-election polls backed up that assumption.

Then things changed. Polls began to show a tightening race. Brown, the Republican, was doing better. The polls generated increased attention being paid to the election. Brown began to pull even with and then move ahead of Coakley. Democrats began to worry. President Obama’s political team began to worry. Losing a Democratic Senate seat meant complications in the drive to pass healthcare reform. Obama’s team made the decision to send the president to Massachusetts this past Sunday to bolster Coakley’s chances. Obama lent his voice to get-out-the-vote telephone calls. The race, and the chance that Brown could win, became headline news. The eventual outcome suddenly became vested with extreme importance. Returns are being followed with a fervor usually reserved for presidential elections.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Impact of the Christmas Bombing Incident

We've seen in recent weeks a resurgence of focus on terrorism. This resulted in large part from the highly-publicized Christmas bombing attempt. The White House has mounted a continuing effort to show that it is focusing hard on the government’s anti-terrorism efforts. These efforts, according the White House blog, include “....the immediate ordering of reforms and corrective steps both today and in the days since this incident.” The blog goes on to indicate that these efforts are in recognition of the urgency signaled by the incident.

Meanwhile, Republicans have responded -- perhaps inevitably -- with criticisms of White House efforts, including calls for even more dramatic efforts to slow down terrorism.

Some of this back and forth is a direct result of today’s hot partisan environment. Anything individuals or entities of one political persuasion do is heavily scrutinized and almost instantly criticized by those of the other political persuasion. This environment has led to politically-sensitive, instant, strong reactions to almost any news event or political happening.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Much Do You Know About X?

Several interested readers have commented on the level of knowledge of average Americans included in national polls.

Here’s one such comment:

The failure of pollsters, supposedly the most empirical of empiricists, to do anything to test the public's knowledge of what they're being asked about is maddening. Pollsters know better than anyone that no one is going to admit to not knowing what they're talking about, yet they persist in pretending self-reporting on how knowledgeable a respondent is an adequate substitute to finding out what people know.

This is the first time in a while I have heard pollsters called "maddening."

Beyond that, several issues here. The reader appears to be focusing specifically on the issue of accepting a respondent's word that they are knowledgeable about an issue. Presumably if we want a real test of knowledge, we would include a quiz in the poll.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Readers Ask: What's Behind Objections to Healthcare Reform?

Several readers have asked questions about our characterization of what's behind opposition to a new healthcare reform bill.

The recurring strain in these queries: opposition can come not only from conservatives worried that the bill would go too far, but also from liberals worried that the bill doesn’t go far enough. And, that we don’t acknowledge this in our analysis.

For example:
This analysis leaves out some important objections to the health care bill that distort the conclusions. After saying that people on the left and right oppose the bill, the author states only the right wing objections (government involvement and cost). Many on the left object to the lack of a public option (which would mean more government involvement) or even an extension of Medicare. There is also the issue of the excise tax, which will fall squarely on the middle class, the lower third of which can hardly afford it.

Why is it that Gallup does not ask whether voters oppose the health care bill because it does not go far enough? I think that a binary question of supporting or opposing it provides an insufficient understanding of the American public's opinion on the bill and supports the illusion that more people support the beliefs of the Tea Party protesters than actually do.

These are good points. Obviously, one can oppose a new piece of legislation for a variety of reasons. Gallup has not explicitly asked opponents if they oppose because the bill goes too far or because it does not go far enough. (More on this below.)

However, we have covered this area pretty thoroughly in several write-ups of open-ended questions. These questions ask respondents to explain their position on healthcare reform in their own words.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who Is More Admired -- Glenn Beck or Pope Benedict?

It’s always gratifying to see esteemed journalists and commentators refer to Gallup poll results. Case in point is The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who led his Sunday column thusly: “It's official: Americans admire Glenn Beck more than they admire the pope.” Milbank’s conclusion is based on the annual Gallup poll of Most Admired Men.

However, I’m not sure this is the best interpretation of our Gallup data.

There are a number of ways to measure admiration. The poll to which Milbank refers is based on an open-ended question: “What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?” Another technique would be to read a list of names and ask Americans whether they admire each. Or, one could read a list of names and ask Americans to pick the one person on the list they admire most.

Each method has its uses. The open-ended method for our Most Admired results is based on a historic Gallup precedent. We first asked the question in this format in 1948. The question basically measures top-of-mind brand awareness. The brand in this case being an admired person. Being high on this list indicates that one's name generates a positive reaction and is also highly salient. (By salient I mean in the front part of people’s consciousness.)

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