Myths and Misconceptions of Presidential Approval Ratings

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Do Americans approve or disapprove of Pres. Obama's job performance? Depends on which poll you check....(Credit: Photo composite by London Shearer Allen)

To approve or not to approve of “the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president” — That is the question!  Or at least that’s what nearly everyone thinks is the question being asked.

And virtually all the pollsters and pundits write as if they know what the question means to them and what it means to respondents. Or do they?

Not only that, Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones has eagerly let us know that Obama’s average approval rating in the sixth quarter of his presidency (47.3%) marks his lowest quarterly average to date, putting him in the “bottom half of presidential sixth quarters historically.” The most recent flurry of poll reports (see here) have been telling us the President’s approval ratings are in a BIG SLUMP. Gallup, to take just one of its most recent press releases, has trumpeted “Obama Job Approval Rating Down to 38% Among Independents” and that the “Overall job ratings for the president continue to be below majority level.”

Gallup has most recently reported that Obama's approval rating is at its lowest yet.  (Credit: Gallup)

Gallup has most recently reported that Obama’s
approval rating is at its lowest yet.  (Credit: Gallup)


Just a few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll was singing the same sad song about how confidence in Obama is waning and that “Americans are more pessimistic about the state of the country and less confident in President Barack Obama’s leadership than at any point since Mr. Obama entered the White House…”


Do You Hear What I Hear?

But what does the vague phrase “handling his job as president” actually mean? A fundamental [textbook] assumption in asking any survey question is that the question should mean the same thing to each and every respondent. It should also mean essentially the same thing a week, a month or a year from now that it does today. If not, then we are comparing apples with oranges, and any such comparisons are ipso facto, invalid, in a word, meaningless.

Otherwise, why would anyone care if we fiddled with the wording of the presidential approval question or any other question for that matter? Because we all know that changing the wording can change the meaning and interpretation of the question.

But how is that any different, psychologically speaking, from one respondent interpreting the exact same question about “the way the president” is handling his job as being about the economy because of his or her exposure to a news story just yesterday about the high unemployment rate in the USA, and another thinking about it as referring to the ongoing war in Afghanistan because of exposure to a different news story or a conversation with a co-worker the day before? Are they not, in effect, answering different questions?

So it’s not so much the wording, per se, but the meaning and interpretation of the questions that matters most of all.


Interpretations, Interpretations

Right now, many respondents, for example, may interpret “handling his job as president” to mean primarily what Obama’s doing about the economy and unemployment; others, especially those living in the Gulf States region, would probably be thinking mostly about how the President has been dealing (or not dealing so well) with the monumental oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still others (e.g., liberal Democrats who supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election) would be more likely to be worrying about the seemingly interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to ignore what might be on the minds of many residents of  the Southwest these days because of the legal duke out between the U.S. Justice Department and Arizona over that state’s new law on dealing with illegal immigration, nor all the Tea Party types raging about “big government” and the monstrous federal debt when they hear the phrase about how Obama is “handling his job as president.” And for the denizens of Wall Street, their political backers and hackers, might they all be thinking a bit more at the moment about financial reform and regulation as they ponder how the president is doing his job?

Just six to nine months ago, tons of respondents would have been thinking about health care reform when asked about the president’s job performance. Just a couple months ago, right after the Times Square Bomb episode (May 1, 2010), lots of New Yorkers and many other Americans were probably reminded of 9/11/01 and thinking largely about terrorism as they answered the approval question for Gallup and everyone else during that time period. And so it goes, ad infinitum: the meaning and interpretation of the approval question varies across respondents and over time. In July 2009, it meant some things it doesn’t mean now to many Americans, and by November 2010, the meaning of the question will probably shift, again, in some unpredictable way.


Enough Already about the “Issues” : How Do I Feel About the Guy?

Maybe the question mostly means, to most respondents, whether they just like or dislike President Obama (or any other president), especially as the gist of the question is asking, in emotionally charged terms to APPROVE or DISAPPROVE of him. How else to explain the huge partisan gaps in his approval ratings documented by Gallup, the Pew Research Center and others, virtually from the beginning of his administration, if it’s not largely about how people feel about Obama and their angst about the “state of the nation” at the moment?


The Rationalizing Public

In which case, the rest of what respondents say about why they approve or disapprove of his performance on this or that issue is just after-the-fact rationalization or plausible justifications for why they like or dislike him (e.g. how he’s handling the economy, the federal debt, the oil spill, illegal immigration, the war in Afghanistan, etc,). In that case, the ambiguous phrase, “handling his job as president” (or its equivalent) used by virtually every pollster today represents not much more than meaningless filler, giving the approval question a veneer of policy relevance for the mass media to consume and interpret about why the president’s ratings are rising or falling and why it means so much for the midterm congressional elections in November.

Ditto article for how he’s handling the “economy” or “foreign affairs” or “the oil spill.” These fuzzy phrases mean different things to different respondents at different points in time. So we are nearly always comparing semantic apples with semantic oranges, when all that matters, as the political psychologist in me would put it, is mostly gut-level feelings and rationalization of pre-existing partisan preferences.


Who Really Knows What’s Going On, Anyway?

Let’s face it: the vast majority of Americans have no idea what the president is doing on a day-to-day basis, and certainly don’t know how he personally is dealing with specific policy matters. Do people really disapprove of Obama’s handling of the oil spill, or do they just disapprove of the oil spill itself? For most people, their “approval” or “disapproval” of the president on such topics reflects more how they feel as a result of what they’ve recently heard about it in the news than any specific view of how the president is handling that issue. When there’s a Rally ‘Round the Flag event such as 9/11, the president’s approval ratings typically soar as respondents bond emotionally with the commander-in-chief.  When there is controversy, or something bad happens, approval drops – but not because the president has acted well, but more so because people just don’t like what’s happened.


Inconsistency Rules!

Approval of how the president is handling certain issues also seems to depend on what other topics happen to be included in the same questionnaire. For example, a recent Marist poll completed on June 24th discovered a 7-point margin of disapproval for Obama on handling the oil spill (46 percent approved, 53 percent disapproved).

This Marist poll taken from June 17-24 found 46% of its poll takers approving of Obama's handling of the oil spill.

This Marist poll taken from June 17-24 found 46% of its poll takers approving of Obama’s handling of the oil spill.

But a Newsweek poll that was finished by June 24 as well (running only two days instead of eight days) turned up an American public with a net disapproval rating for Obama of 27 points (33 to 60 percent) – a net difference of 20 points between the two polls!

This Newsweek poll ended the same day as the Marist poll, but found only 33% of poll takers approve of Obama's handling of the spill.

This Newsweek poll ended the same day as the Marist poll, but found only 33% of poll takers approve of Obama’s handling of the spill.

Clearly, this glaring gap was not merely the result of a trivial difference in the polling period. Nor was such a humongous discrepancy likely to be due to the difference in the nature of the samples (registered voters in Marist vs. all adults in Newsweek). If anything, registered voters tend to be more Republican in composition and therefore more disapproving of the President’s job performance.

So the gap may be even larger than it appears here.  Instead, the gap between the two polls is more likely the consequence of the differences in the order and context of the questions themselves. And so it goes for lots of other examples too numerous to be recounted here of differences in presidential approval ratings between polling organizations, not to mention variations in how issues such as health care and financial reform are framed and sequenced for respondents to approve or disapprove of Obama’s performance in handling them.

So Obama’s approval ratings and the elections in November may have little or nothing to do with the issues in “how he is handling his job as president” and much more with how the electorate simply feels about him and their gut-level anxiety and insecurity about the condition of the country. For the most part they just blame the quarterback for how the game is going. And that’s what that unbearably ambiguous approval question is essentially picking up, pollster, policy wonks, and pundit rumors to the contrary notwithstanding.


It’s about the Money and the Psyche

A little history here tells us that the invention of presidential approval ratings by the Gallup Organization was driven largely by the business problem of what to sell to their news media clients during the off years between presidential elections. It’s become a measure of presidential “strength” between elections, but it’s mostly a PR device that has now become the predominant political indicator, par excellence, for political pundits and commentators, though there is little hard evidence to suggest that the measure really does reflect the president’s electoral strength.

Presidential approval ratings have become something of a Rorschach ink blot, with survey respondents, pollsters, political pundits and the like each reading their own meaning, needs, and motives into the vague and ambiguous phrase, the way he’s handling his job as president—making it all one big national, projective, and political-psychological test. Where’s Freud now that we really need him?


George F. Bishop is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Graduate Certificate Program in Public Opinion & Survey Research at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book, The Illusion of Public Opinion: Fact and Artifact in American Public Opinion Polls (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) was included in Choice Magazine’s list of outstanding academic titles for 2005 (January 2006 issue).


David W. Moore is a Senior Fellow with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He is a former Vice President of the Gallup Organization and was a senior editor with the Gallup Poll for thirteen years. He is author of  The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls (Beacon, 2008; trade paperback edition, 2009). Publishers’ Weekly refers to it as a “succinct and damning critique…Keen and witty throughout.”

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Myths and Misconceptions of Presidential Approval Ratings

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