Salt in the Wound

January 27, 2010

Polls only mean so much.  How representative is the sample?  Even to the extent that a given opinion, as worded, is genuinely held by a certain fraction of the population, what exactly does that mean, and how deep does it go?  How transient is it?  Etc.

So, as with any poll, however carefully scientifically controlled, however carefully conducted, take these data with a grain of salt.

That said, I was interested to hear this week that President Obama is the “Most Polarizing President Ever”.  What does that mean?  Well, Gallup has been checking Obama’s approval ratings throughout the past year (asking respondents whether they approve of the job he’s doing) and comparing his ratings among Republican and Democratic voters.  Gallup announced this week that President Obama’s Republican-Democrat gap, on average, over the past year has been the highest of any president during his first year in office, going back at least to the 1950s.  (Scroll down on that page for comparisons of past presidents’ whole first terms.)  Apparently an earlier Pew poll, just a few months into Obama’s presidency, found pretty much the same thing.

Speaking of government, a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll (original poll and data here; scroll down to question 10, on page 10) asked about 800 people, “Which of these four statements best describes your view of the federal government—(a) it is healthy and vibrant and working well, (b) it is okay and needs only small reforms, (c) it is not working well and needs large reforms, or (d) it is unhealthy and stagnant?”  The answers were as follow:

a, “working well”—3%
b, OK—25%
c, “not working well and needs large reforms”—46%
d, “unhealthy and stagnant”—24%
not sure—2%

Relatedly, a Washington Post-ABC poll a couple of weeks ago (original poll and data here; scroll down to question 40) tried to ask about 1,000 people in a neutral, non-prejudicing manner, “Generally speaking, would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with more services?”  (I think the person asking the question also presented the two choices in the opposite order to some respondents, to avoid skewing the results in favor of the one or the other.)  58% of respondents were for smaller government; only 38% were for larger government.  4% had no opinion.

A similar recent Rasmussen poll (poll and data here, question 3), when it reminded respondents that bigger government and more “services” would also have to mean higher taxes, found even more lopsided support for smaller government, 66% to 22% (with 11% “not sure”).

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2 Responses to “Salt in the Wound”

  1. Evan Says:

    This is true. However, when you ask people if they think Medicare benefits should be reduced, or the Social Security retirement age raised, or military bases in their state closed, they change their tune.

    It’s the same thing in California. Voters demand lower taxes and insist that there’s a lot of government waste, but when asked what programs they state should cut funding for, they don’t have an answer.


  2. Good point, and bad sign, and I don’t have an answer for the problem you point out.

    Still, I’m encouraged that (at the moment, if we can believe the polls, etc.) so many people are getting it basically right in the abstract, even if we don’t always know a way to turn that into concrete results.


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