The Public Opinion Polling Industry: Why Public Disapproval Polls Don’t Really Matter

One strange anomaly of the business of polling the public on issues and politicians is how the public uses disapproval polls to express some anger, yet continue to support issues or candidates regardless. One good example is the latest Gallup Poll where Congress earns just a 13% approval rate, Yet, in November 2012, you can certainly expect most current members of Congress to be re-elected. The public’s claimed disapproval of Congress doesn’t always carry to their own representatives, who usually score a higher approval rating than Congress as a whole overall.

Presidential approval ratings are a whole other dimension of fickle public opinion. The current Gallup Poll puts the president’s approval rating at just 39%, an all-time low. Conventional wisdom means that he won’t be re-elected with such figures. Yet, at the same time, the president leads all GOP challengers in most polls, including the Gallup Poll. The president even leads a generic GOP challenger by a 45%-39% margin as well at Gallup. All this means that disapproval numbers for a sitting president don’t really translate into a lack of support. Support figures for the president’s re-election seem to run about seven points better than his actual approval numbers.

Several factors might account for this. The public may not really approve of the current leadership by the president in many individual areas. For example, only a little over 26% of the public approves of the his economic leadership. Yet, compared to any actual GOP challenger, the president leads every challenger by some numbers, with only the former GOP governor of Massachusetts running close or tied in some polls.

This past weekend, a GOP congresswoman from Minnesota won a GOP straw poll event in Iowa. Her campaign was quick to celebrate this win. But, on closer view the victory was an empty one. The same congresswoman runs about 14 points or more behind the president in recent state polls from her home state, meaning that she cannot be elected if she cannot even win her home state.

Some good examples from history are this: In 1972, Democratic candidate George McGovern failed to win his home state of South Dakota, yet was re-elected to the Senate in 1974 winning 53% of the vote. He remained in the Senate until he was defeated for re-election in the 1980 Republican sweep that brought Ronald Reagan into the presidency.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore failed to win his home state of Tennessee, which cost him the election despite winning the popular vote nationwide. Not being able to win your home state means that a candidate will not win the presidential election. Further, the state of Ohio always determines the winner of the election in modern history as well. So, just two factors appear to be accurate predictors of whether a candidate will win the presidential election or not. Will they win their home state and will they win Ohio?

However, the strange public disconnect between voicing disapproval while supporting something in public opinion polls also extends to issues as well. Some polls suggest that the public disapproves of so much sex and violence in the entertainment industry. Yet, the reality is that the public has an appetite for both sex and violence in entertainment, where many individual companies do quite well by providing action films, violent video games or sexually provocative DVDs, etc.

All of this suggests that the public polling industry isn’t really able to capture the true public mood on either politicians or culture issues. The public uses polls to vent some dissatisfaction, but then usually goes right back to supporting the same politicians or the same culture issues they just took a little jab at. Public opinion polls seem to be a proving ground where respondents like to express an opinion, similar to an editorial on something, but which doesn’t prove to actually always gauge their true intentions. For this reason, public opinion polls will forever remain a flawed guage of the actual public mood. But, none of this prevents the business of public opinion from becoming a large and profitable business industry.

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