Stacey McCain gives a tutorial on reading public opinion polls. Ya can’t cherrypick the numbers to make yourself look good and polls taken months before elections are worth no more than the paper they’re printed on.
In March 2009, Obama’s approval rating was 64%. Eight months later, Republicans swept the off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey, then in January 2010 won the Massachusetts special Senate election, and rolled on to a historic 63-seat House pickup in the November 2010 mid-terms. So, in the span of 20 months, Obama went from Mr. Can’t-Be-Beat to Mr. Can’t-Catch-a-Break — but none of that could have been predicted on the basis of the March 2009 polls.
This lack of poll predictivity is true, no matter whether you like the poll result or not. Stupid people reading political polls typically make one of two basic mistakes:
- Cherry-picking positive numbers. In other words, “Let’s believe the numbers that look good for Our Team, and ignore the numbers that look bad.” This is how Pelosi and the Democrats screwed up in 2010. They listened to consultants and strategists who told them to ignore poll numbers showing that ObamaCare was deeply unpopular with likely voters, because various sub-questions about health care still looked good for Democrats. And I remember in 1998 how Republicans cherry-picked polls telling them how popular impeachment was, and then got their asses kicked in the November mid-terms.
- Chicken Little. Doom-and-gloom panic at the first hint of negativity in the numbers is not helpful. It’s easy to get scared out of your shorts by looking at polls taken when the public is in a general mad-as-hell mood. But it’s important to remember that partisan affiliation seldom swings suddenly in one direction or the other. Even when parties put forward truly wretched candidates, they still usually get their basic share of the electorate: John Kerry got 48% in 2004; John McCain got 47% in 2010. So hysterical freakouts over a downward blip in the poll numbers is almost never justified. The sky is probably not falling.