Don’t fall off the wagon

The other day I suggested that people take a pledge not to read, at least until the beginning of 2012, articles about presidential polls, and particularly to

ignore polls about President Obama’s approval rating, a subject on which the Republican media are constantly trying to jerk us into a triumphalist frenzy, notwithstanding the fact that Obama’s always “plummeting” approval rating never gets below 43-45 percent, about where President Reagan’s approval rating was for a long time during his first term.

Here’s an example of what I mean, appearing in the Must Reads today at

Poll Numbers Continue Alarming Trend for Obama
Is the sleeping giant of the American electorate
finally awakening

When you see a link like that, as exciting as it may seem, don’t click on it, don’t even be tempted. Cast a cold eye on Obama’s “sinking” poll numbers. Web surfer, pass by.

- end of initial entry -

Alexis Zarkov writes:

Opinion polls are largely useless in forecasting the outcome of a presidential election before and even during a campaign. Only until right before the election do we get useful predictive information. We know that political science research, apart from polling, can predict the popular vote very accurately months before the vote. Andrew Gelman discusses the disconnect between polls and predictions from political science fundamentals here. The article is fairly technical, but non-mathematical readers can still gain a lot from the narrative. In particular, look at Table 1 to see how much political science beats polling. If the federal government would release third quarter economic data in September 2012, we would have a very good idea who is going to win in November absent a very close election. The change in real disposable personal income per capita is one of the key predictor variables to watch. More so than the polls. In fact the wildly varying opinion polls seem to converge to the political science prediction as discussed by Gelman. The press and political strategists seem unaware of what’s common knowledge among quantitative political scientists. Not surprising. Dry economic data and complex statistics have little entertainment value as compared to personalities and polls. The idiots in the press seem to think that Michele Bachmann’s minor gaffes about irrelevant facts (was John Wayne born in Waterloo, Iowa or Winterset, Iowa) matter. They think that they can influence the election by focusing on such trivia. Presidential (unlike Congressional) elections are strongly dependent on factors outside their control.

Is there any useful knowledge we can get from watching Obama’s approval ratings? Perhaps. Even though this information is useless as a predictor, poor ratings could make it difficult for Obama to raise money. The donors don’t like to back what they perceive as a loser. How much does money matter? If the election is largely determined by the state of the nation as of Labor Day, does the campaign matter? We don’t know for sure because the political science models are calibrated from past elections where both parties waged a campaign and spent lots of money. I think we can say that at the margin spending doesn’t matter much unless the election is very close. In other words, it won’t matter if Obama spends $900 million versus $800 million on his campaign. But he has to spend (say) at least $500 million.

If you must track Obama’s approval then go to and read the graph carefully. This graph aggregates and smooths the polling data in a mathematically correct fashion using advanced techniques. In my opinion, they do it right. However you must “adjust the controls” to get the right picture. Here is the recipe.

1. Go to

2. Click on “Obama Overall”

3. Click on “Tools” to bring up the menu

4. Click on “Choices” and de-select “disapprove”

5. Click on “Date Range” and go back about six months

6. Click on “Pct Range” and enter 40 and 55 in the range box and click on “Set Range”

7. Click on “Tools” again to get rid of the control panel

Now you will have a plot that shows how Obama’s approval rating is changing that’s not influenced by a single poll. Follow Mr. Auster’s wise advice about ignoring press announcements of the latest Obama approval rating poll. Again these approval ratings really only tell us something about how donors might act. They don’t predict the election at all. I also suspect that Mr. Auster’s advice to ignore the polls altogether is also wise. You need only pay attention a few weeks before the election. Watch the economy instead.

Jake F. writes:

I love the fact that you encouraged people to take the don’t-read-polls pledge, and are reinforcing the need to do so with a “lead me not into temptation”-style post about That, along with your persistent reminders about the “free fall” in Obama’s numbers — even though those numbers never seem to move — provide a welcome dash of realism to what would otherwise be a lot of wishful thinking.

James R. writes:

A. Zarkov is right but I’m not sure those involved are unaware of what is common knowledge among political scientists, because that premise is based on a misunderstanding of what polls are for, especially at this stage. These polls aren’t a predictor of who will win a year from now. The purpose of these polls is to shape expectations and outcomes, to massage the electorate, and give an impression of who our “inevitable” candidates are (as opposed to who our “outside the mainstream no chance to win so you shouldn’t pay attention to them” candidates are); the pols are for positioning the “credible” candidates the electorate will chose from. As the esteemed T. Herman Zweibel used to say “Why help pick the monkey when you can own the organ grinder?”

Paul K. writes:

I agree with your advice to avoid watching polls. At the Drudge site, alongside the dubious poll numbers, there is this foreboding headline: “Jewish Dems losing faith in Obama.”

Does this mean he may only get 70 percent of the Jewish vote, rather than 77 percent?

Here’s the cause for concern, according to the article:

“Many of the Clinton-era Democratic mega-donors who make Israel their key issue, the most prominent of whom is the Los Angeles Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, never really warmed to Obama, though Saban says he will vote for the Democrat and write him a check if asked.”

With enemies like that, who needs friends?

LA replies:

That’s a riot. So the article starts out talking about this big worry for Obama (“he’s losing the Jewish donors!”), which turns out not to exist.

In fact, I was originally going to include this type of story among the “jerking the conservative readers around” type of articles to avoid reading. “Jewish support for Obama declining.” Yeah, right. In 2008 there were all kinds of articles about Jewish unhappiness with Obama. Obama was even going to lose in New York! It all turned out to be bull.

The fact that lots of journalists with nothing to say have to fill a certain number of column inches each week, and therefore write a lot of sensational stuff to keep readers reading them, doesn’t mean that we have to read them.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 29, 2011 12:30 PM | Send

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