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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

GOP Convention: Paul Ryan, Ann Romney, Gov. Christie on "Polls"

Paul Ryan takes the stage Wednesday night at the Republican Convention in Tampa. About three-quarters of Americans give an opinion of Ryan when asked, but it is unclear exactly how in-depth those opinions are, given his relatively short period of time on the national stage. As I point out in this analysis, Ryan has become better known since Aug. 12, but opinions of him are slightly less positive now than they were then.

Given Ryan's historical record in Congress, the assumption is that his speech Wednesday night will focus on the government’s budget, the deficit, entitlement programs, and spending. Focusing on the government is not new; I believe that it is the most important and central theme of this election. Republicans view government warily and want less of it. Democrats view government charitably and want government to be more involved in society's efforts to ameliorate social and economic problems.

Several themes emerged from the two major speeches delivered in prime time Tuesday night -- by Ann Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. One them was gender. Ann Romney explicitly focused on women in her speech.  That makes sense from a polling perspective. The gender gap in American politics is alive and well, as I documented here. Taken as a whole, women support Obama by 50% to 42% over Romney, based on the three weeks of Gallup Daily tracking ending Sunday, Aug. 26. Men, on the other hand, support Romney over Obama by 51% to 41%.

Among independent voters, the target Ann Romney was most likely aiming for, the gender gap is muted but still evident. On the other hand, some analysis I just completed shows that undecided voters -- so far in August about 8% based on our tracking data -- are slightly more likely to be male than female.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie’s speech stole some of Ryan's likely thunder by focusing on the role of government in society. As noted, that's a broadly dominant theme in general among Republicans this year. At a time when only 22% of Americans say they have a positive image of the federal government, and 60% say they have a negative image of government, it provides an easy target. 

It should be remembered in view of Ryan's speech that he is a sitting member of Congress, a body which currently gets an all-time low job approval rating of 10%.  We’ll see what Barack Obama and Joe Biden have to say about their views of the federal government next week.

Christie also took on unions in his speech, particularly teachers’ unions -- a body against which he has been waging war in New Jersey. Unions have a 52% job approval rating among Americans at this point, same as last year, but up slightly from the 48% of 2009, the lowest in Gallup’s history.  That history, by the way, dates back to 1936, making union approval one of the first questions asked by Gallup lo those many years ago. Christie was preaching to the choir re unions in terms of his audience of fellow Republicans, who give unions very low approval ratings. Of course, next week, it will be a completely different story. Democrats have overwhelmingly positive opinions of unions. We’ll have more on unions going into Labor Day weekend here at

One last point. Christie certainly got my attention when he mentioned polls in his speech on Tuesday night. Here’s what he said:

There's only one thing missing now. Leadership. It takes leadership that you don't get from reading a poll. You see, Mr. President -- real leaders don't follow polls. Real leaders change polls. That's what we need to do now. Change polls through the power of our principles. Change polls through the strength of our convictions. Tonight, our duty is to tell the American people the truth.

This is not a new sentiment, but an important one. It exemplifies the historical trade-off between a focus on elected representatives (including governors) attempting to pay attention to and heed the will of the people they represent, as opposed to doing what the elected representatives think best and hoping that the people will follow. By “change polls” I assume Christie was implying that if elected representatives do what they personally think best, even if it goes against the will of the majority of the people as measured by polls, the majority of the people will ultimately come to realize the error of their ways and change their attitudes about the issue.

And there is the issue of the verb “follow” as well. When Christie says “real leaders don’t follow polls” does he mean that they ignore polls and by inference ignore the attitudes and will of the people?

That's a pretty dangerous path to go down. In my view, real leaders pay close attention to the will of the people as measured by polls and take that will into account as a highly important (but not sole) source of input and wisdom in making necessary policy decisions. 

Last September we asked the American public "If the leaders of our nation followed the views of public opinion polls more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?" We found that 68% said "better off." So, I guess it can be said that Gov. Christie was exemplifying his own beliefs Tuesday night -- as he was himself not following the polls when he made his statement about not following the polls.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Phase V of the Campaign Begins

The race for the White House 2012 has entered Phase V -- as I called it here. The two back-to-back conventions are now underway, GOP first in Tampa, and the Democrats second in Charlotte. When the dust clears from those conventions, the race enters Phase VI, Sep. 7-Oct. 2,  followed by the last and final phase as the debates get underway on Oct. 3. 

Conventions have little official function anymore. So their value to the candidates -- the value that can produce an average five-percentage-point “bounce” in a candidate's standing in the polls -- is based on the intensive media coverage that focuses voters on the party’s ticket.

Mitt Romney’s campaign faces a challenge this year in its efforts to maximize the media focus with the potential to improve standings in the polls -- the weather.

Tropical Storm Isaac is no longer an issue for Tampa, where the GOP Convention is being held. But Isaac is headed for the upper Gulf Coast somewhere in Mississippi and Louisiana. While a weaker storm than Katrina in 2005, Isaac still has the potential to wreak havoc and along with that havoc will come media attention. As I write this, it is unclear what the final outcome of Isaac will be, but whatever happens, it will affect Romney's ability to maximize the impact of his convention. A situation in which a great deal of news media attention is focused on Isaac and its aftermath Wednesday and Thursday -- including the possibility of a trip by President Barack Obama to visit the damaged areas -- will, in theory, dilute public focus to what's happening in Tampa.

Ironically, it's possible that Romney would have benefitted more if Isaac had come close to Tampa, since he and the convention would have been the center of storm coverage attention.  With the storm apparently going to hit land far to the West, attention diverts away from the convention.

Of course, as most famous generals and admirals learn in wartime, it’s not the onslaught of problems and things going wrong that isthe issue, it’s how the officer handles the problems that defines lasting glory. So the challenge for Romney and his advisers will be how they handle the situation if there is major damage along the Gulf Coast, even as their convention is reaching its climax on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

This race is about as close as it gets going into the first of the two back-to-back conventions. 

When the race is "not close" going into the convention period, Gallup analysis shows that it usually remains “not close” after the convention, leading to the generalized finding that 80% of poll-leaders prior to the convention end up winning the election.

When the race is close going into the conventions, more can change. This was the case in 1988 and 2004. In both of these instances -- both involving Republican candidates named Bush, the Democrat was leading prior to the conventions. Both Bushes ended up winning their elections.

So, I think it’s fair to say that a lot can change during the two-week convention period. Our ballot measures in mid-September, after both conventions are over, may show a substantially different race than we show now.

Looking at available data, I would conclude that Romney’s advisers have decided to focus on three issues during the campaign: a) maintaining motivation and enthusiasm among Republican voters, b) doing something about the “likability” gap between himself and his opponent, Barack Obama, and in the process combating Romney's image as more in tune with the wealthy than average Americans, and c) exploiting Romney's advantage over Obama on the economy.

We’ve been tracking one measure of enthusiasm, the one to 10 “certainty to vote” question. For the month of August so far, 85% of Romney voters say they are certain to vote on Election Day, compared to 79% of Obama voters. That's not a huge edge, but it is an edge. And in our recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 51% of Republicans said they were more enthusiastic about voting than usual, compared to 39% of Democrats.  That's a turnaround from the previous two elections. Plus, history shows us that usually the final voter turnout on Election Day favors Republican candidates.

Then there is the “personality” deficit. This is fairly remarkable. Obama has a 53% favorable image, compared to Romney's 48% favorable image. And, when it comes to the choice of which candidate is more "likable", Obama beats Romney 54% to 31%. 

Romney and his advisers are taking the usual steps at the convention. His wife, who has an 18-point favorable over unfavorable edge in our latest poll compared to her husband’s two-point edge, will be featured, and Romney will be shown in family and church settings as much as possible. It's unclear how much one can change one's image. Al Gore had what observers called a wooden image in 2000. His handlers advised him to work out, become physically fit, wear black turtle necks, and do other things to change his image.  Gore did win the popular vote in 2000.

The other way Romney’s campaign can go, of course, is to attempt to make Obama less likable. Obama’s campaign has focused on Romney’s Bain experience in an attempt to turn it from a potential positive to a negative. It’s unclear what Romney’s campaign can or will attempt to do to change Obama's image.

I cannot quantify the impact of “likability.” Recent popular presidents such as Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy were clearly likable -- an assessment made on my judgment and not on polling, since we didn’t ask that question. Richard Nixon was probably not likable. But the truth is, for most of us, our personality is pretty much set and difficult to change.

Romney has the advantage on the economy, beating Obama by nine points when Americans are asked who can better handle the economy. That’s a real plus, given that the economy is the nation's top problem and voters’ highest priority. Obama gets a job approval rating on the economy down in the 30% range.

So, we have a situation in which voters can choose a candidate they like, but who may not do as good a job on the economy, versus a candidate they like less, but who they perceive will do a better job on the economy.

These next several days will be crucial for the Romney campaign.  And next week will be crucial for the Obama campaign in turn.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Forthcoming Bounces

Obama and Romney remain statistically tied among registered voters at the national level, with Obama at 47% and Romney at 45% in Gallup's latest seven-day average.

Turnout in this election will be a key. In the last election in which a Democratic incumbent ran for re-election (1996), Bill Clinton led Bob Dole among registered voters in Gallup’s final survey (Nov. 3-4) by a 50% to 34% margin, but by 48% to 40% among likely voters. The actual election results showed Clinton winning the popular vote by a 49% to 41% margin (Ross Perot got 9% of the vote). In other words, the gap went from 16 percentage points among registered voters to eight points among likely voters. These results suggest that Romney has the potential to perform better among actual voters on Election Day that he is performing among registered voters.

Romney has two “bounce” opportunities coming -- his announcement of his vice presidential running mate and then in short order the Republican Convention which begins on Aug. 27 in Tampa.

The impact of these two bounces will be of interest, but not of lasting significance until the impact of Obama’s own potential convention bounce is taken into account at the end of the Democratic Convention scheduled for Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte. In other words, we are looking at a sequential three-bounce sequence: Romney’s VP bounce, Romney’s convention bounce, and Obama’s convention bounce. The meaningful data will be the contours of the race when the dust settles after all three bounce opportunities have occurred.

At that point, the race will go through a period of heavy-duty campaigning until the debates begin on Oct. 3.  We will then have the potential, but not the certainty, for a shift in the race based on debate performances.

Just as a reminder, this presidential race can be segmented in several ways. Demographically, Obama’s core support comes from nonwhites, young people, those with postgraduate educations, those with very low incomes, those who are not religious, those who are not married, and women. Romney’s core support comes essentially in the obverse groups -- in particular, whites, older Americans, the very religious, and those who are married.

Attitudinally, Obama’s core support comes from those who value the role of the government in attempting to solve society’s problems; those who have a liberal, open view on social and morality issues; those who are sympathetic to underdogs in society and believe that government should be used to help them; and those who are sympathetic toward groups that are not the majority. Romney’s core support comes from those who distrust government and do not believe that it is the appropriate role of government to attempt to solve society’s problems, among those who have more structured views on what is right and wrong as far as morality and social issues are concerned, and among those who are inclined to believe that underdogs should be given the opportunity to help themselves rather than being helped directly.

If I had to put my finger on the major attitudinal distinctions, I would say what tends to separate Obama from Romney supporters are divergent attitudes on the role of government, the appropriate way to help economic and social underdogs, and the appropriateness of having structured views on what is right and what is wrong.

Finally, there are the images of the two candidates. Obama clearly has a strong image strength in the minds of voters as the most likable candidate and the one who cares most about average people. This goes along with his supporters' general sympathy for underdogs. Romney has strengths as the candidate who can get things done and as better able to handle the economy. This goes along with his supporters' general approach to society and government, which attributes causality for people's situations more on the individual rather than on the social structure and environment in which they operate.

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