Polling The Economy

Just 21% of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, according to last week’s Rasmussen poll. Not good news for the recently launched Obama re-election campaign. But it is not yet fatal. Much political polling – including fatuous questions about the President’s place of birth – is merely a proxy for ‘how do you feel about the President right now?’. They are snapshots. They reveal what people think in April 2011, not what they will feel in November 2012. In 1991, George H W Bush was the most popular president in American history. But there was no election until the following year, when he lost.

At the end of March, a Rasmussen poll revealed that almost half of voters still blamed President George W Bush for the current state of the economy. But close reading of the question shows that it was far from neutral. The question referred specifically to the ‘recession which began under President Bush’. It is, of course, completely true to say that the recession began under President Bush. It is also – at least arguably – fair to apportion more blame to him than to the current President for the state of the economy. But a statement such as that steers voters towards a particular answer. It doesn’t give an accurate snapshot of how voters presently think of the economy and economic policy. It encourages backward looking answers. A neutral question might be, “who do you think is mostly responsible for current economic difficulties, President Obama or former President Bush?”. But even that snapshot doesn’t tell us who people will blame in November next year.

One possible wording would be, “President Obama has now launched his re-election campaign. In the light of this, who do you think is mostly responsible for the current state of the economy, President Obama or former President Bush?”. Common Sense does not offer this as a neutral question, or a valid measure of how people feel today – though it is, arguably, no more biased than the wording Rasmussen used in March. Instead, this is offered as a more predictive measure. It is obvious that, as people’s attention turns to the next election, they will tend to attribute more blame – and indeed credit – to the policies of the man who will, by November 2012, have been President for very nearly four years.

Of course, even this predictive measure is flawed. While people are sure to regard a President approaching the end of his term as being accountable for the state of the economy, we do not know what the state of the economy will be. At the same point in Ronald Reagan’s first term, unemployment was as high as now, and it had not fully recovered by Election Day. But by 1984, the direction of travel was clear. The economy was booming and unemployment was falling. President Reagan was the beneficiary.

The Fed has recently revised downwards its expectations of growth for 2011. It is still expecting growth to exceed 3%, not far below the trend rate. But coming out of a recession growth is usually higher. By the end of 1983, growth hit 8.5%, and it accelerated into 1984. Unemployment and house prices improve only after a year or so of strong growth. 2012 is going to have to be a good year for the economy if the President is to be re-elected.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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