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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Data on Chris Christie

The latest in the fast-moving media story lines on the race for the GOP presidential nomination is focused on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the possibility that he might throw his hat in the ring. Christie’s actions to address looming financial disaster in New Jersey have attracted much attention. Supporters claim that his attempts to curtail the spending and his outspokenness and ability to “tell it like it is” in New Jersey could translate well to Washington.

Christie is a lawyer by training (Seton Hall Law School). He became a freeholder in Morris County, N.J., and then made headlines as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney.

If Christie were to jump into the presidential race, he would begin with a recognition challenge. This would not necessarily be bad, as I will return to presently.

Christie is well known in New Jersey and in Republican political circles. He is not well-known nationally. Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin recently reviewed all extant polling data on Christie. There is not a lot of it. Between 50% and 65% of Americans say they have never heard of Christie or don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. As Charles says: “Christie looks like a lot of governors who, however well known in their home states, are far less visible nationally, or even regionally."

It’s important to remember that Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry did not have great national name identification, either, earlier this year as they began their campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination. Bachmann’s name ID among Republicans was as low as 52%, and Perry’s, 54%. Bachmann is now known by about as many Republicans as know Mitt Romney (name ID scores in the mid 80% range), and Perry is known by 79% of Republicans.

Or course, as I indicated above, facing the challenge of starting out in a political campaign with relatively low name ID comes with both negatives and positives. The process gives the politician the chance to shape his or her image, rather than dealing with an image already set in stone. But the process also carries with it intensified media scrutiny, more in-depth searching of the politician’s past record, and, almost by definition, an increasing fusillade of criticism from one’s opponents.

We’ve seen these processes at work with both Bachmann and Perry. Bachmann had a Gallup Positive Intensity Score as high as 24 in June and a score of 20 in early August, when she won the Aug. 13 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames. Shortly after that, however, and concomitant with Perry’s entrance into the race, her positive intensity begin to fall, reaching its current 8, her lowest on record.

Perry begin with a Positive Intensity Score of 21 when Gallup began tracking him in early July, and it reached as high as 25 in late August early September. Now it has begun slipping -- to 22 in the latest Gallup report, and most likely lower still when Gallup next reports the scores next Tuesday on

Christie has a good chance of following this same arc: An initially high positive intensity, a surge in name recognition, followed by a downturn as he becomes better known, as his fellow Republican opponents begin to criticize him, as Republicans themselves begin to look into his positions (not all of them highly conservative) and as the media begins to scrutinize his record. Of course, every situation is different. Were Christie to jump in, he might carve out a different pattern.

Then there is the issue of Gov. Christie’s weight. No one knows for sure how much he weighs, but, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson concludes, it is likely that he is “extremely obese” by government standards, which would be a weight of more than 286 pounds for his reported 5’11” height.

Some people may argue that his weight is a personal, non-issue, but others say it is a significant variable to be taken into account were he to run for president.

ABC News’ Joel Siegel asked the question: “Is New Jersey Governor Too Overweight to Become President?

Bloomberg columnist Michael Kinsley answers that question in his recent column, saying: “Look, I’m sorry, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat.”

Robinson agrees with Kinsley's main point, saying: “Whether or not he lets himself be persuaded to run for president, Chris Christie needs to find some way to lose weight. Like everyone else, elected officials perform best when they are in optimal health. Christie obviously is not.”

Americans themselves claim not to be personally discriminatory against overweight people. Our Gallup July update this year shows that 12% of Americans admit that they have less respect for a person who is overweight. Most say it makes no difference. Only 14% say it is OK for businesses to refuse to hire someone just because they are significantly overweight.

But 42% say it is justified for health insurance companies to set higher rates for people who are significantly overweight. Which brings up some of the discussion about Christie’s weight. It’s unhealthy. Which sets a bad example for the nation’s citizens, and which statistically increases the probability that a President Christie would have health issues while in office.

Here are some of the conclusions of my colleague Elizabeth Mendes' review of our Gallup-Healthways Index data on weight and other aspects of life:

  • "The relationship between a high BMI and various health problems has been well-documented in traditional scientific literature, and Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index surveys from 2009 confirm these findings. Those who are obese are far more likely than those who are a normal weight and those who are overweight to report being diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and to have had a heart attack. Gallup has also previously reported a rise in diabetes during the past two years in the U.S., concomitant with an increase in obesity, as well as a clear relationship between diabetes and obesity across states."
  • "The rate of depression is also higher among those who are obese, with 23.3% reporting they have been diagnosed with depression, compared with 15.0% of those who are normal weight."
  • "Likely reflecting the effects of higher rates of chronic conditions, obese Americans are more likely than those who are normal weight or overweight to report that poor health keeps them from doing their usual activities. The obese are almost twice as likely as those who are normal weight to miss out on eight days or more of activities per month because of poor health."
Our data show that 42% of Americans -- as of our latest survey, from July -- consider themselves to be either very or somewhat overweight. Only 6% put themselves in the "very overweight" category.

We also get at this in a different way in our Gallup Healthways tracking by asking Americans to tell us their height and their weight -- and then calculating their BMI. This procedure allows us to estimate that 63% of Americans are overweight, including 27% who are obese. And even this procedure is based on self-reports of height and weight, and it’s likely that Americans overreport their height and underreport their weight, meaning that the true rates are higher in the population.

Based on the self-definitional reports in our consumption poll, Republicans (44%) are slightly more likely than Democrats (39%) to describe themselves as overweight. So maybe Christie would fare somewhat better in the Republican primaries than he would in a general election.

At any rate, were Christie to get into the race, his weight no doubt would become an issue. Our data suggest that most Americans claim one’s weight doesn’t affect their views of a person, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the impact of weight in a more subliminal, subconscious evaluation or reaction to a candidate. Research shows that people make quick judgments based on just looking at the face of a political candidate -- judgments that can predict the winner of political races. It’s certainly possible that quick judgments based on a candidate’s weight could also factor into a voting decision.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Public Opinion Polls and Public Policy

The Atlantic Magazine Senior Editor Derek Thompson begins his Sept. 21 piece on the latest USA Today/Gallup poll on Obama’s job plan by saying: “Reading public opinion polls aren’t [sic] a good way to make public policy.”

This is not a new sentiment.  We have, in fact, been hearing these types of concerns about the dangers of using public opinion polls as a basis for policy and legislation -- phrased in many different ways -- for decades.

I have a book on my desk published way back in 1949 ("The Pollsters" by Lindsay Rogers) which promotes on its cover the fact that the book is “an acute analysis of the polls as a threat to representative government and the democratic process,” and that the book is “an indictment of the destructive influence of the polls on newspapers, legislators and the public itself.” Another book I’m looking at, published in 2002 ("Mobocracy" by Matthew Robinson), claims to point out “how the media’s obsession with polling twists the news, alters elections and undermines democracy.”

In fact, before either of these books was published, Dr. George Gallup, in his book "A Guide to Public Opinion Polls" (1944), found it necessary even at that early date in the development of polling to respond to the question "Won't the country suffer when its leaders begin to pay a lot of attention to public opinion polls?" I've always liked Dr. Gallup's answer: "The answer to the question posed above, then, is not that the country will suffer when its leaders begin to pay a lot of attnetion to public opinion polls. The country will suffer when its leaders ignore, or guess about the public's views and make wrong estimates of their knowledge."

And, when we check in with the public itself, we find substantial support for the idea that leaders/representatives should in fact be paying close attention to polls.

New Gallup polling, which I’ll be discussing in detail at on Friday, shows that substantial majorities of Americans think the nation would be better off if leaders followed the results of public opinion and polls more closely. And the public, as it has for years now, has more confidence in the average people of this country to “make judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country” than they do in the legislative branch, the executive branch, the Judicial branch, or in the men and women in political life in this country who either hold or are running for public office.

Americans, it would seem, think that reading polls is an excellent way to make public policy, since polls are nothing more than the collected attitudes and opinions of the average citizens of this country. At a time when the public’s confidence in the elected representatives themselves is at an all-time low, it seems that paying more attention to the distilled wisdom of the average people whom these representatives are elected to represent makes sense. Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that Americans want the men and women they send off to Washington to increase their efforts to follow what Americans back home think should be done. And of course, the best way to assess this is through polls.

Speaking of paying attention to polls, President Obama’s Senior Campaign Strategist David Axelrod wrote a widely discussed memo to “Sunday Show Producers” a couple of days ago, mainly focusing on what he considered to be misinterpretation of where President Obama and his re-election chances stand at the moment.

I’m not a Sunday Show Producer, so I didn’t get a copy directly from Axelrod, but the memo was published by Ben Smith of Politico.

Axelrod’s major thrust is to combat the general conclusion reached by various analysts and commentators that Obama is in trouble at the moment. This type of effort on behalf of a campaign staff is not unusual. This is now the sixth presidential election I’ve been monitoring at Gallup, and I can say that those candidates on the negative side of poll results almost inevitably attempt to challenge them and to argue that their candidate is still viable. That often involves use of the phrase “The only poll that counts is on Election Day,” but sometimes involves more complex scrutiny and re-interpretation of poll results. Sometimes this scrutiny and re-interpretation is warranted, of course. I’ve certainly learned over the years than nothing in politics and polling is black and white.  There is almost always some room for interpretation in the process of figuring out exactly where the public stands on candidate or on policy issues. 

With all of that said, here is one of Axelrod’s comments that deals directly with policy matters.

Public polling released this week makes clear that Americans strongly agree with the President’s plan to create jobs and provide economic security for the middle class and believe that leaders in both parties should move quickly to pass the American Jobs Act.

The main issue here is the validity of Axelrod’s emphasis on the “strongly” part of the assertion, along with the “move quickly.”

Gallup’s polling of Sept. 12-13, released last week, showed that the plurality of Americans favor passage of a jobs bill plan similar to the one Obama has proposed, by a 13-percentage-point margin. This is and of itself doesn’t suggest that the public “strongly” agrees with the president’s plan, nor that leaders in both parties should move quickly to pass it. But it does show more support than opposition (as does this CNN poll).

Our just released USA Today/Gallup poll from Sept. 15-18 shows substantial support for five specific proposals included in the jobs bill, and also significant support for two methods for paying for the jobs bill (higher taxes on richer Americans and closing corporate loopholes). A majority of Americans agree that the jobs bill will help create jobs and help the economy at least “a little,” although only about 3 in 10 say that it will help those situations “a lot.”

Certainly then, Axelrod is generally in the right direction in his comments about his boss’ jobs bill -- but I don’t see direct evidence in our polling that the public believes that leaders in both parties should “move quickly” to pass the Jobs Act.

More generally, there is substantial evidence that creating jobs is the number one priority of the American public.  In this sense, the president is focusing on the right issue -- as of course, are most of the Republican candidates, albeit with different pathways to a jobs solution in mind.  Keep tuned for Gallup CEO Jim Clifton's new book on this issue, The Coming Jobs War

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Comparing the GOP Candidates, Perry to Huntsman

Michele Bachmann has gained more national name identification among Republicans than any other GOP candidate Gallup has been tracking this year, moving from 52% recognition in early March to 84% today -- for a gain of 32 points. (For full details on all of the candidates, go to our Gallup Election 2012 data center). Herman Cain has gained 27 points in all, from 21% name identification in March to 48% in the last two weeks through Sept. 11. Other candidates who have gained significantly in name recognition include Jon Huntsman from a low of 20% to 46%, for a gain of 26 points, and Rick Perry, who has gone so far from 55% to 75%, for a gain of 20 points.

As you can see from the above, each of these candidates began at a different starting point.

Bachmann and Perry began their recent “careers” on the national campaign stage with name identification of over 50%. Bachmann has accomplished the most in terms of getting better known during this campaign season so far, vaulting into the same name recognition territory as Newt Gingrich, who has been a national politician since the 1990s, Ron Paul, who has run for president twice before this year, and Mitt Romney, who too was a prominent candidate in 2008.

On the other hand, Cain and Huntsman began this year with severe name identification handicaps -- both at 21%. The problem for these two candidates:  Despite their impressive gains in recognition, they are still below the majority level nationally among Republicans. Thus, for both Cain and Huntsman, lack of name recognition remains a problem. One can’t win one’s party’s nomination for president is one is an unknown to more than half of one’s rank-and-file party identifiers nationwide. This weak positioning for the two men persists, even though they have both been included in recent Republican debates and have both, in one way or the other, been actively campaigning.

It may be somewhat surprising -- it is to me -- that Rick Perry’s name recognition has essentially stalled out for the moment.

Perry's name identification rose rapidly as he entered the national scene a couple of months ago, but his name identification has leveled off at 75%. Keep in mind that for these last two weeks Perry has been a dominant figure in national political news coverage. He most recently has been anointed by the national press as the “front-runner” in the GOP race. Still, he remains less well-known that Bachmann and Romney. It would continue to be surprising if Perry’s name identification doesn’t rise in the weeks ahead.

The standard-setter for name identification among Republican politicians is former Alaska governor, former vice presidential nominee, book author, and television personality Sarah Palin -- whose name recognition is essentially universal, from 95% to 97% each week all year long.

We’re in the field now asking Republicans nationwide how closely they are following the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.  This will give us another insight into the degree to which the attention we political devotees are paying to the election is, in fact, not shared by others.

I was asked recently by an astute political journalist which candidate generates the strongest reactions from Republicans -- in either direction.

One way to answer that question is to look at the combined total of Republicans who recognize each person who say their opinion of that person is either strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable. The winner? Rick Perry, with 27% strong favorable opinions and 4% strong unfavorable opinions (again, among those who recognize him). Next in line is Sarah Palin, with 20% strong favorable and 10% strong unfavorable, followed by Herman Cain (24% strong favorable and 2% strong unfavorable), and Rudy Giuliani (21% strong favorable, 3% strong unfavorable). Palin’s 10% strong unfavorable, by the way, is the most negative reaction generated by anyone we track, while Perry’s 27% strong favorable is the most positive.

One final point. It’s worth noting how poorly Jon Huntsman’s campaign strategy has played out so far. In addition to his name identification problems, Huntsman has the most negative image of any GOP candidate we measure. The triple whammy for Huntsman is that he has low name identification (46%), a low-intensity image (only 11% of those who recognize him feel strongly about him in either direction), and a net negative image among those who do feel strongly about him (5% strongly favorable, 6% strongly unfavorable).

In recent weeks, Huntsman and his campaign have decided that his best strategy is to differentiate himself from the pack of other GOP candidates by adopting an explicitly more moderate position on issues such as evolution and climate change. The result? His Positive Intensity Score has dropped even further, with two straight weeks of negative numbers. Huntsman, as noted, is now in the most negative position of any candidate we track.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Obama's Speech Not Likely to Have Immediate Impact

Americans' approval of the job being done by President Barack Obama and the job being done by Congress have differed by about 27 percentage points on a month-by-month basis since early 2009 -- a difference that has been remarkably consistent across this time span. 

Both of these approval measures have drifted downward since Obama took office. But they have gone down essentially in unison over time, with just a few differences on a monthly basis. The basic correlation coefficient between Obama’s job approval rating and Congress’ job approval rating at the monthly level since February 2009 is .90, which is very high.

What does this tell us? For one thing, it indicates that a tide that’s going out in a harbor lowers all ships -- so that even though the heights of the masts of two ships are different, they both are affected as both ships sink lower and lower with the outgoing tide.  In other words, the same negative economic and political environmental forces that are affecting Obama’s approval rating appear to also be affecting Congress’ approval rating. The American public is not doing a lot of differentiating.  

What are these forces? Well, the economy is certainly one of them, of course. So let’s add the economy into the picture:

There were, as you can see, some differences among these three measures in the first six months or so of Obama's first year in office.  But since August of 2009, the correlation between economic conditions and Obama's approval rating has been fairly high -- about .74 according to my calculations. In other words, particularly in the last several months, Americans' rating of the economy, their rating of Obama, and their rating of Congress have all moved in rough lock step.

There was an upward bump in all three measures in May of this year, coinciding with the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan. This upward bump was evident in all three measures -- which is interesting in and of itself. Apparently the bin Laden incident was a temporary mood enhancer for the American public, and thus lifted up all three of these ships/measures. This reinforces the reality that Americans at this point are displacing their positive and negative feelings onto any measure we put in front of them.

Now, in the last several months, everything has slipped down. Americans are more negative about anything we put in front of them -- the economy, the president, and Congress.

The point here is that, whatever we want to call it, there is a negative mood abroad in the general American consciousness at this juncture in history, and this negative mood is affecting Americans' views in a very general way. Most political observers view the president’s job approval ratings and Congress' job approval ratings as separate entities, which they are.  But they are both subject to the same types of overall political and economic forces.  The president's job approval ratings on average are much higher than Congress' job approval ratings, but the ups and downs in both of these are moving in a remarkably similar pattern.

These facts of political life are relevant as President Obama prepares to make his speech to the nation about jobs Thursday night.

These data would suggest that it's going to be hard for Obama to move his approval numbers much with one single speech, unless it is such a powerful speech that it viscerally changes Americans' moods overnight.  This is because Americans appear to be not so much evaluating Obama per se when we ask our approval/disapproval question, but rather responding to him in terms of their more general mood.  And that mood is related to the economy, perhaps related to their views of the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the way Washington works in general, and perhaps related to other, unknown factors.  One speech probably doesn't have much of a chance of changing that mood.

It's worth emphasizing that Americans were apparently quite negatively affected by the spectacle in Washington over the debt ceiling crisis in July and early August.  (All of our measures skidded downward after these events).  So in order to turn around his approval numbers, Obama may also have to convince the public that things are going to work smoother in Washington in the weeks and months ahead, a proposition which will immediately be rendered doubtful given the almost certain publicly negative reaction that Republican leaders will give Obama's proposals after his speech.

The path to higher ratings for Obama (and for Congress) most likely will need to be actual proof of a better economic situation, and actual proof that elected representatives in Washington are getting things done. None of this is likely to result from Thursday night's speech.

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