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Friday, April 30, 2010

More on the Arizona Immigration Law

During the healthcare reform debate, observers pondered the issue of survey questions that asked respondents to give an up or down view of the overall legislation -- as opposed to asking about specific elements of the legislation. Some pointed out that Americans tended to disapprove of the new law in general -- but were positive when specific elements of the bill were tested one by one. This argument is one used by none other than President Obama himself.

Both approaches inform the debate. Almost all survey questions tell us something if we take the time to put them in careful context.

Congress ultimately had to vote up or down on one healthcare law. There was real value in asking Americans about the bill as a package. In similar fashion, although Americans may agree or disagree with various elements of a political candidate’s platform, when push comes to shove, they either have to vote for or against the candidate.

Now, we face a somewhat parallel situation. We have just finished asking Americans about the now hotly controversial Arizona immigration law. We asked generically how much respondents had heard or read about “a new immigration law that was just passed in the state of Arizona.” We excluded those who said they had heard or read “nothing at all.” We then asked the rest if they favored or opposed it “based on what you know or have read about the new Arizona immigration law.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Obama's Policies Versus Politics

John Harwood talks in a recent The New York Times column about the differences between President Obama’s current positioning re policy and his positioning re politics. Harwood had the opportunity to interview the president last week. Obama indicated to Harwood that he believed that the “core decisions” he has made were “the right ones.” But Obama went on to say, “What I have not done as well as I would have liked is to consistently communicate to the general public why we’re making some of the decisions.”

In this situation, I assume Obama is talking about, among other things, his administration’s decisions on stimulus plans and the healthcare bill. It is true that 100% of the people he represents did not and do not agree with these decisions.

I guess this is a lament that could be made by almost any elected official. Unless the official has a 100% job approval rating, he or she can always say they wish that more of their constituents agreed with their decisions. All leaders/representatives/officials would like those they serve to understand -- and agree with -- their rationale in making decisions.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Wall Street Reform From the People's Perspective

Two theoretical problems -- public opinion-wise -- with President Obama’s current focus on passing new regulations on “Wall Street” (i.e., financial regulatory reform).

Problem Number One: Americans do not identify the excesses of Wall Street as the nation’s top problem, or even as among the nation’s top problems.

Very few Americans talk about reform of Wall Street, or reform of major banks, or reform of major financial institutions, when they are asked to identify the major problems facing the nation today. Three of the top five problems Americans mentioned in our most recent "most important problem" update are economic (unemployment, general economy, deficit).  But problems with big banks/Wall Street per se just don't show up (1% mention “corporate corruption.” ). 

Therein lies the potential positioning problem for advocates of Wall Street reform.  Americans clearly worry about the economy.  They don't necessarily translate that worry directly into concern about regulating big financial institutions.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Banks, Businesses, Bailouts

Both Democrats and Republicans appear to be stumbling over one another in their efforts to establish supremacy on the issue of regulating financial institutions, big banks, and/or Wall Street. For his part, President Obama said in his Saturday radio address: "We will hold Wall Street accountable. We will protect and empower consumers in our financial system. That’s what reform is all about."

Both parties’ leaders appear to assume that the public is all in favor of anything relating to putting it to these big financial institutions.

One fundamental fact supports this assumption. Americans are not in the least sympathetic to anything big, including, in particular, big banks, etc.

Case in point. Take a look at this graph. A pretty graphic illustration of the depths to which banks have fallen in the public’s esteem.

Still, based on a review of existing data, we do not find as much of a massive majority in favor of new regulations on banks and Wall Street as party leaders may have assumed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Matt Bai's "Survey Says" New York Times Magazine Column

Writer Matt Bai’s Sunday The New York Times Magazine column “Survey Says” deals with polling and politicians, inspiring me (not surprisingly) to reflect on three of his main points, as follows:

1. Politicians selectively use poll results when they are favorable to their cause.

This is most certainly correct -- albeit not a startling revelation, as I can testify after years of watching people applaud or ignore polls depending on how they serve their political purposes.

I might generalize. Politicians will selectively use almost any data or information in a way that furthers their cause. Politicians will also ignore or criticize data and information which is negative to their cause. Polls are part of this process.

Bai notes that in the healthcare situation Republicans have been very quick to quote polls showing that a plurality (they often incorrectly say a vast majority) of Americans are opposed to the healthcare reform bill. He notes that Republicans have, on the other hand, been quick to say that polls don’t matter in other circumstances -- for example during the Bush admininstration.  Bai doesn't get into specifics, but we certainly had one instance of this as President Bush pushed for the surge in Iraq while polling showed that Americans were more interested in pulling troops out.

I would offer another more current example. As I’ve discussed, Obama has positively cited poll data showing that Americans support individual planks in the healthcare plan even if not the overall plan. Obama has also criticized those who would cite poll data showing after the bill passed that a majority of the public still doesn’t support it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Religion and the Supremes

The Supreme Court will be changing again. To no one’s surprise, 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens has announced he will be retiring this summer.

This puts the ball in President Obama’s court.  Obama, like all presidents, will proclaim that his only object in nominating a new justice is to find the most qualified person for the job. But various ascribed and achieved personal characteristics of candidates will inevitably come into play. There are many population segments that could, and perhaps will, claim that they need more representation on the court: Asians, women, blacks, gay and lesbians, and so forth. How Obama balances all of this in his decision-making will be fascinating to watch.

At the moment, it will be noted, there is one black on the Supreme Court, no Asians, just two women, one Hispanic, and no one who is openly gay or lesbian. Obama’s last appointment was female and of Hispanic background.

Now, an additional consideration has cropped up as part of the discussion. Religion.

Some observers have taken note of the fact that, with Stevens’ retirement, there will be no Protestants or other non-Catholic Christians on the Supreme Court. Six of the remaining eight justices are Catholic. Two are Jewish. At the moment, that means that 67% of the U.S. Supreme Court is Catholic and 22% is Jewish.

This proportionality is, of course, widely different from the religious composition of the overall U.S. population. My latest calculation from over 350,000 Gallup Daily tracking interviews conducted in 2009 is that 24.3% of American adults identify their religion as Catholic and that 1.8% identify as Jewish. By far the largest group of Americans, religiously speaking, are Protestant/non-Catholic Christians -- 54% of all adult Americans in our 2009 data. After Stevens steps down, this group will have no representation on the court.

Also. Beyond Protestant/non-Catholic Christians and Catholics, the next most prevalent group in America is the 15.3% who say they have no religious identity, or who don’t otherwise give a response to our religion question. I don’t know how many potential nominees will openly say they have no religious identity. But presumably, some observers may argue that this group of atheist/non-believers also deserves their place on the court.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

More on the Tea Party Movement

Each side of the political spectrum appears to have a vested interest in portraying the Tea Party movement in the specific way that best fits their ideological positioning.  This is of course not at all a surprising fact of life in a hot political environment.

Those with a negative orientation toward the Tea Party have an interest in marginalizing it as a narrow segment of ideologues. Those with a positive orientation are interested in portraying the movement as widespread and representative of a broad swath of the American population.

The exact "size" of this movement is difficult to quantify. The number of actual participants in the Tea Party movement -- those who appear in person at rallies or meetings -- is, on a relative basis, small. That is, hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands as compared to the base of 300+ million Americans or about 220 million adult Americans. But. As is the case for an iceberg, what's visible often tells us little about the size of what is beneath the water.

Survey research has an important role to play in this arena. Surveys are, in theory, our most effective mechanism for gauging the level of commitment or support or agreement with the Tea Party movement out there across the country.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Obama's Offshore Drilling Decision, Motivation to Vote, and Insurance

President Obama announced the “expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration” this week, but in ways that would “balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America’s natural resources." Translated, at least as interpreted by Juliet Eilperin and Anne E. Kornblut of The Washington Post, this means that he refrained from opening up areas where the political push-back would be most intense.

Obama's general policy initiative on drilling looks like it will receive approbation from a majority of Americans. Our latest survey on the issue in 2008 found 57% approving of “allowing oil drilling in U.S. coastal and wilderness areas now off-limits to oil exploration.” (Important to note: the question was phrased in terms of steps that could be taken to “reduce the price of gasoline.”)

The Washington Post’s Jon Cohen brought our attention to a February Pew Research poll on the topic.  That survey found similar results.  The Pew question asked about “Allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters” as a way of addressing America’s energy supplies, with 63% support.

In both instances, support for drilling was highest among Republicans, lower among independents, and lowest among Democrats. In our Gallup survey, the differences were fairly large: 80%, 56%, and 39%, respectively.

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