The media obsession with polling that has developed over the last decade is understandable to a certain degree. More and more news organizations are polling as they see the value of promoting their organization and their brands with headlines based on the latest data. As a former journalist, I fully understand that crisp, compelling headlines can be created with a single data point.
But what is also true is that a single data point rarely tells the whole story. The underlying dynamics that are driving changes in poll numbers are far more compelling than the top-line data and will always tell a more complete story.
One of the best headlines and ledes in any media coverage of polling I’ve seen was in a New York Times article by Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman in the fall of 2016. The headline and the lead on the story said: “Voters see Trump as Big Risk but may be worth it.” That was the insight that captured their polling data perfectly and summed up the underlying dynamic that ultimately led to Trump’s win. It was also far more compelling than the conventional horse race numbers in September.
Of course, what Trump and possibly his team of enablers failed to recognize was that might have been a successful formula for a political outsider but what voters want and need in their President is something completely different. That explains why Donald Trump is one of the few one-term presidents in the last 100 years.
Recently there has been a spate of “news” stories regarding Vice President Harris’s job ratings. Following several polls with low favorability numbers for the Vice President, several media outlets are saying that Harris is “under water” or “faces an uphill climb.” This widespread coverage underscores a lesson I have preached at my polling firm for two decades: you can rarely use a single data point to capture the true dynamics of any political situation.
Moreover, if history teaches us anything, it should be that favorability or approval ratings of Vice Presidents are not really indicative of much at all. The role of Vice Presidents is rarely to be center stage. While some Presidents have chosen running mates to fill potential gaps in their own profile, more recently Presidents have opted for real substantive partners, especially as governing in the modern 24-hour news cycle has become more complicated. That’s what President Obama did when he chose then Senator Joe Biden and it’s what Joe Biden did in choosing Kamala Harris.
Consider a headline published by Gallup on October 26th,2009 about then Vice President Biden: “Vice President Biden’s favorable rating continues to decline.” In the first 10 months of President Obama’s first term, Vice President Biden’s favorable rating dropped from 53% to 42% and his unfavorable rating rose from 29% to 40%. There’s no question that’s a significant shift.
And the same article goes on to note that despite more limited polling data on Vice Presidents, both Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney had higher favorable ratings in their first years than Vice President Biden.
But here’s the most important difference among the three men: only Vice President Biden was later elected President. One clear implication of that could be that approval ratings of Vice Presidents in their first year may be largely irrelevant.
A 2010 Gallup article by Jeffrey M. Jones showed Vice President Dick Cheney with a favorable/unfavorable rating in 2004 of 46/46 – the year that President George W. Bush was re-elected, making him only the third post World War II Republican president to win a second term. Was the Vice President’s approval rating at all relevant in that election? Not likely.
Even when it comes to Presidents and their approval ratings in their first year in office, this single data point doesn’t always capture the whole story about voters and how they’re viewing their President.
While job approval is very important, based on my experience polling in four presidential campaigns, equally important are the “attributes” or qualities that each President or Vice President brings to the table. These personal qualities must connect to the values that are most salient for the persuadable voters in order to achieve a winning coalition.
For example, during President Obama’s re-election campaign in the midst of financial crisis his credibility as someone who “would build an economy from the middle out, not the top down,” was one of his most compelling qualities and created an implicit push off against his opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney whose record in business proved more than just a little problematic for him.
No candidate from either party can win the presidency just by winning his or her base. Winning campaigns know that the presidential electorate is defined by those in the center as much as those on the left and right. Winning campaigns know that they have to perform well with more moderate or centrist voters in order to put together a winning electoral college margin.
Perhaps the most significant difference between President Biden’s 2020 win and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss was that President Biden “won the center” even though both won the popular vote. People in both parties need to recognize that neither liberals nor conservatives come close to a majority of the electorate. There are two centrist groups, which have some overlaps: moderates and independents.
In 2020, President Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote share by 12 points among both those centrist groups.
While treating every poll and notable data point as news breaking is tempting, I think editors should resist the temptation. A presidential term is more like a marathon than a sprint. The lead may change back and forth along the route, but it is a long way to the finish line and there are no trophies given out for being in first place at the halfway mark.