"Polls are for dogs."
So said a former, 1950s-era Canadian prime minister, John Diefenbaker.
Nothing is more common that a politician with unflattering poll numbers to dismiss them. To say he or she is above polls, and focuses on sometimes unpopular but necessary policy rather than polls.
But I take polls seriously. Even if a pollster can deliver up any result you want depending on what kinds of questions are asked. If the polls show that a good policy is unpopular, that's the politician's signal to work harder at explaining it. Or maybe that the policy really does stink and needs to be scrapped. In any case, the mood of the people is of vital importance and should be monitored. You just have to be monitor it carefully, and too many people in the business do so only casually.
For instance, the so-called "headline number" in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds just 6% of Americans believe Obama's $787-billion stimulus package has created jobs. A failed policy, therefore. Grist for pundits to declare the Obama presidency comatose. An electoral massacre surely awaits Dems in November.
If you trouble to read responses to all the questions in these polls, the picture invariably brightens for Obama and for Dems.
I've always believed the public is out front of politicians, and certainly pundits. Sure enough, a substantial number of those polled believe the Obama stimulus will create jobs. And that's just common sense. We've barely emerged from the worst economic downturn since the Depression, so you'd basically have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to imagine that the 8 million Americans who lost their jobs since the U.S. recession began in December 2007 are going to be re-employed in a matter of months.
A substantial number of Americans also are sanguine about this year's projected $1.6-trillion deficit. Certainly more so than the sky-is-falling crowd, who seem to think that a $1.6-trillion deficit in a $14-billion economy is a prelude to a U.S. version of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet everyday Americans, as shown by their responses to specific poll questions, believe that a job-creating stimulus will, by putting people back to work, reverse the sharp decline in government income-tax revenues and cut jobless-claim payouts. Which, again, is only common sense.
The problem, so far as setting the national mood goes, is that everyone from CNN newsreaders to op-ed pundits read only that "headline" number - that so far, joblessness is still far too high, and that the record-sized deficit is worrisome to many Americans. (As it should be, if they think it's reached a permanent new high.). The media then broadcasts the news of a failed policy or presidency exclusively on that basis.
I know, I know. Journalists are supposed to dig deeper than that. But most don't. I wish I could say the acceleration of the news cycle is to blame. But it's mostly journalistic laziness.
Walter Shapiro at Politics Daily casts light on the phenomenon:
A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters asked the blunt and politically relevant question of which is more important "reducing the federal budget deficit or reducing unemployment." The answer in a 72 to 23 percent landslide was "reducing unemployment." In fact, every demographic subgroup in the poll (including Republicans and "born-again evangelicals") chose fighting unemployment by a better than a two-to-one margin. The next question in the Quinnipiac survey was straight out of Keynes, asking voters whether "using federal dollars to create jobs" would lead to a lower or a larger deficit. The response should lift the hearts of big-government liberals as voters by a 59 to 33 percent margin said that such government spending would reduce the deficit. A majority of every demographic group (except Republicans and born-again evangelicals) expressed the belief that fighting unemployment would increase taxes and thereby help staunch the flow of red ink...The truth is that the political community in Washington, egged on by cable TV pundits and newspaper political reporters, periodically goes into hyperdrive following a story line about the mood of the electorate. Headline-making poll numbers become convenient building blocks in constructing this narrative of the moment. But political skeptics (a small but persistent band) like to read the actual poll questions and study the numbers before they jump on any bandwagon. That is why it is a mistake currently to assume -- just because February's theme is Obama in trouble -- that the era of Keynesian economics is over and that voters prefer a government whose ambitions are as modest as those of Calvin Coolidge.