The Obama poll drop mystery: Unexplained! And maybe not real!

On Tuesday, Jonathan Chait wrote a post titled, “The Obama Poll Drop Mystery: Explained!” The explanation? Bad White House messaging.


(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

“Claiming that ‘America is back’ is by far the weakest operative message and produces disastrous results,” Greenberg wrote. “It is weaker than even the weakest Republican message and is 10 points weaker in intensity than either Republican message.” And yet, Chait wrote, “after Friday’s jobs report, Obama appeared at a factory to hail the news, and even declared later that day, yes, ‘America is coming back.’ ”

”This may all be a pure coincidence,” Chait admitted. “But the timing works out almost perfectly, with the Friday news driving three days of polling results that would appear on Monday.”

Put me in the “pure coincidence” camp. I cover the White House (among other things) for a living, and even I hadn’t noticed the president said “America is coming back” in a Friday statement. The idea that those four words -- much less the long statement surrounding them -- ricocheted around the nation and caused a sudden and otherwise inexplicable drop in Obama’s poll numbers is very difficult to believe.

For one thing, it’s hard to imagine the person who would see a strong jobs report, but then hear that the president said “America is coming back,” and flip from telling pollsters she approves of the president to disapproves. But the bigger issue is it’s simply hard to imagine that anyone heard the president saying that at all. In a paragraph that ultimately got cut from my New Yorker piece on presidential persuasion, I wrote about the declining audience for presidential speeches:

The American people no longer listen that closely to the President. “Kennedy was the first president to have a live press conference,” Samuel Kernell, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, says. “From then through mid-Clinton, you have Presidents anchored by or leaning heavily on national television addresses. But by 2000, eighty-eight per cent of households have cable. They have a choice in what to watch. So now the audience for those addresses is about half of what it was. And people are choosing whether to watch based on their political preferences. The President’s audience is disproportionately his own party members. The people he really needs to persuade aren’t there.”

And that’s for major addresses. The audience for mid-day statements is even lower. One reason the bully pulpit doesn’t work that well is that most Americans don’t listen very closely to the president. His much-hyped September address to a Joint Session of Congress got 31 million viewers -- about a tenth of the country, and almost certainly a tenth of the country that is disproportionately likely to have already made up their mind about this president.

As for the mystery of Obama’s plummeting poll numbers, I’m not yet convinced there’s any mystery here at all. There were two weird poll results this week: Obama dropped four points in the Washington Post/ABC poll and six points in the CBS News/NY Times poll. Those drops were sharp, and didn’t appear to coincide with any particularly significant negative event, which makes them strange. Meanwhile, his approval ratings rose by one point in Gallup’s poll, two points in the Reuters/Ipsos poll, and three points in Pew’s poll, all of which were taken subsequent to the Post/Times polls. 

So until more polls show a significant drop for the president, I’m inclined to write this off as noise.

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