Recently, the ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that Mitt Romney “has emerged from the Republican primary season with the weakest favorability rating on record for a presumptive nominee…trailing a resurgent Barack Obama in personal popularity by 21 percentage points.”
So what? That may be a pseudo-news story, but favorability ratings are hardly the indicators pollsters use to predict elections. After all, the recent vote-preference polls, which ask who voters will support in the election, don’t show anything near a 21-point advantage for Obama, no matter how “unpopular” Romney is according to his “favorability” ratings. Even that same ABC/WP poll finding Romney so unpopular compared with Obama nevertheless showed Obama with only a 7-point lead over Romney in the presidential vote.
Nate Silver addresses this issue, suggesting that ratings early on in the presidential campaign show a weak correlation with electoral success, though ratings closer to the election are more likely to reflect who the winner will be. But he doesn’t address the more central question: Why look at favorability ratings at all? Why not just look at the head-to-head match-ups that pollsters typically measure?
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There are many measures that pollsters provide to the public that receive an inordinate amount of news attention, despite their relative uselessness in predicting election outcomes – compared with the more direct vote-choice question. A candidate’s favorability rating is one such measure.