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David Hill: Polls give Obama a free pass

Anne Wernikoff

The public polls are giving President Obama a free pass.

None are asking the tough questions about his performance in office. Most importantly, no pollsters in the public realm are asking about Obama’s perceived motives and public demeanor.

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Yes, the usual polling organizations are asking the typical job approval and favorability questions. But almost no one is asking whether his performance is mostly politically motivated, and absolutely none of the public pollsters are asking whether voters have seen a change in the president’s style, personality and demeanor when dealing with the press and the public.

Is our president seemingly more aloof, detached, condescending and — dare I say — snarky?

To me, as a social scientist, there is what professionals call “face validity” to these observations. Maybe I’m wrong, but until someone asks, I think these changes are self-evident to the public.

The Gallup poll is an outlier here and gets a qualified passing grade on scrutinizing the president. In June, Gallup probed deeply on Obama’s image, asking about everything from his motivations (political or national) and integrity to his work style and management skills.

The problem with the Gallup analysis is that it correlated these traits back to the president’s overall job approval rating, as if the latter is the coin of the realm. 

It didn’t seem to give these individual attributes their own standing, worthy of separate scrutiny apart from job approval. The analysis seems to suggest that attributes like likability, clarity of plans, understanding of our problems and motivations are irrelevant because they do not correlate with overall job approval.

Perhaps that merely indicts job approval ratings as a useful barometer of a president’s relationship with Americans. Consider this: In June of this year, only 38 percent of Americans told Gallup interviewers that they thought Obama “has a clear plan for solving the country’s problems.” That seems appalling. But Gallup is dismissive because the correlation with Obama’s job approval is not statistically significant.

More recently, in the middle of last month, the ABC News/Washington Post poll did ask a single question that’s relevant to Obama’s motives: “Generally, do you think Obama is more interested in doing what’s best for the country or what’s best for himself politically?”

The results were sharply split, but this is a flawed question. Few people want to believe that “their president” ignores the country’s best interests. To do so would cause too much political dissonance.

CBS News polls have routinely been asking questions like this: “These days, when Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress oppose policies proposed by the Republicans, is it mostly because of a disagreement about policy or is it mostly because they want to stop the Republicans from gaining political advantage?”

This speaks to motive but is severely flawed because it forces respondents to become partisans and put party ahead of objective reactions to the president and his tactics.

CNN/ORC polling has a time series — not asked since September — that follows the president on four dimensions: (1) “Is a strong and decisive leader;” (2) “inspires confidence;” (3) “is honest and trustworthy;” and (4) “cares about people like you.”

These are fine for what they are, but they don’t speak at all to motives and speak too narrowly to leadership and work style. I’d like to see this time series refreshed with a new wave of polling. I’ll bet the president has lost ground.

Context is important to asking questions like these in a voter interview.

If a battery of traits and attributes follows a generic favorability and job approval battery per Obama, along with some questions that ignite partisan flames, then voters will respond according to partisan inclinations.

But if questions like these are asked before partisanship is invoked, then the president will most assuredly take a hit.

 

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.