All the polls I have read about tell me that Obama’s “personal popularity” is high. In this story from ABC World News, Obama is “seen favorably by 56 percent of Americans overall, including 58 percent of women and 53 percent of men.” I have always been puzzled by this, for several reasons.
First of all, what is “personal popularity?” What question do pollsters ask to get this number? I went to the Langer Research poll to find out and here is the question: “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of…” and then the two presidential candidates. We also learn that George H.W. Bush led Bill Clinton 50 to 37 in popularity in 1992 and we all know how that turned out.
The thing that puzzles me about these numbers is that they don’t match up with the popularity of Obama’s policies. Few people have met Obama and fewer know him personally, so what does the question really mean? Is it a question about looks? About manner? About policy? About race? About who’s side he’s on in the political divide? About his family, his dog, his smile, his wealth? We are not voting for class president or who’s going to be the homecoming queen. And as we saw in the Bush vs. Clinton popularity poll, the question is far from an infallible guide to the outcome of the election. John Kerry was more popular than George W. Bush - 54 to 47 - in 2004 and got creamed in the election.
Second, there is an unspoken agreement among the American people, call it “affirmative action in opinion,” that Black people need a break. It’s the reason that Black columnists and opinion leaders can make statements that, if the races were reversed, would be widely seen as racist. So Obama is assured of getting virtually the entire “favorable” vote from the Black community and most of the vote of the Liberal community. Having been told since before the 2008 election how popular Barack Obama is it is the brave person indeed who admits to a pollster that he or she has an unfavorable impression of Obama. We are allowed to object to some of his policies, we are not allowed to object to his persona.
A very similar phenomenon can be found when people are polled on the subject of gay marriage. They know what the “right” answer is and give it to pollsters. It’s only in the privacy of the polling booth that they are willing to say, via their ballot, what they really believe.
Whether we get a Preference Cascade reflected in public opinion polling before the election is doubtful. We will be told that most people view Obama favorably up to and after the election. But the real opinion that people have of Obama, the poll that counts will be the election and I will lay odds that Obama is not nearly as popular as the polls would make you believe.