It's a cliché to point out the reporters are addicted to polls the way some conservative moralists are to painkillers and gaming tables. What rarely gets noticed is how irresponsibly and often incredibly they frequently spin them.
Last week, a pair of poll results helped create a mini-boom for President Bush, as reporters and pundits marveled over the fact that despite a bloody month in Iraq and sustained questions about the White House's handling of pre-9/11 intelligence, the president managed to pick up some points and widen his modest lead over presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.
Fox News' Brit Hume looked at the polling data and announced Bush was "on the rebound." He wasn't alone. "Bad News Just Rolls Off Bush," read a headline for a Kansas City Star column that announced Bush has "become a president with a sheen of Ronald Reagan Teflon." A similar Detroit News column declared, "Pundits bang away at George W. Bush, but he's weathering storm," and added, "The more barbs the president suffers, the more confidence he gains with potential voters. Bush's standing with likely voters improved, and his overall standing with Americans has solidly rebounded."
Those pundits might want to look a bit closer at all the available poll results, because they simply don't paint a portrait of a president whose "overall standing with Americans has solidly rebounded." The episode highlights what goes wrong when the press becomes overly impressed with passing polling data.
There's no doubt that last week's poll results were surprising and caused (or should have) some concern for the Kerry campaign. Polling voters between April 16-18, the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey showed Bush indeed expanding his lead slightly over Kerry, 51-47 percent. At nearly the same time an ABC News/Washington Post poll was released, reporting Bush moving ahead of Kerry, 48-44 percent. And yes, given the political circumstances of early April, a turbulent time for the White House, the results were newsworthy. But the notion of Bush has morphed into a Teflon president who's able to operate high above the concerns of star-struck voters is just not supported by the data.
Worse, the press in the last week failed to tip news consumers off to some important polling details. Completely ignored by the pundits was the fact that already this year CNN/USA Today poll results have swung wildly several different times, making Bush's latest gains less impressive. For instance, earlier this year between Jan. 11 and Feb. 2, the survey recorded a 19-point swing in favor of Kerry in a match-up with Bush. Part of the problem is the survey polls less than 800 likely voters nationwide, giving it a robust four percent margin of error. (By comparison, the ABC News/Washington Post poll surveyed 1,200 registered voters.) In other words, the CNN/USA Today poll needs to be taken with a large tablet of salt, regardless of who's up or down.
Worse, the press corps didn't even stay within the bounds of the oldest working media cliché; three items makes a trend. Instead, the press swung into action, boosting up Bush, after reading just two poll results, while simply ignoring surveys that didn't fit their preferred storyline. For instance, the Zogby International poll, released the same time as the ABC/Washington Post and CNN/USA Today polls, found Kerry actually leading Bush nationally, 47-44 percent, (In the same Zogby poll, just 43 percent think Bush deserves to be re-elected.)
Also ignored, believe it or not, was the latest Fox News poll, which asked voters if the election were held today, for which candidate would they pull the lever. The results were a statistical tie; 42 percent for Bush, 40 percent for Kerry, numbers that have remained unchanged for two months.
Meanwhile, a new Marist poll released Monday showed it was Kerry who was leading Bush, 47-44 percent, in the key 17 battleground states where the election will be decided. Interestingly, in the Washington Post's own poll, in the more significant race, where the election will actually be decided, Kerry leads Bush 46-44 percent in 17 battleground states. So where's the proof of Bush's "surge"?
On Sunday, the Washington Post reported in a page-one article that through skillful "oratory" and use of images, "President Bush and his aides have kept the American public from turning against the war in Iraq despite the swelling number of U.S. casualties there." But the polls paint a different picture; one suggesting the American public has clearly turned against the war, and Bush's handling of it, over the last 12 months.
Just look at the data from the Post's own survey; 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation in Iraq, the highest response rate that running question has garnered in 12 months. Fifty-three percent don't think Bush has a clear plan about what to do in Iraq, 59 percent agree the United States has "gotten bogged down" in Iraq, and 35 percent think it's left the nation weaker. (Just 29 percent think it's made the United States stronger.) Also, 65 percent think there has been an "unacceptable" level of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
Meanwhile, according to a University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey conducted between April 1-14, 51 percent of Americans don't think the war in Iraq was worth it, and 56 percent don't think Bush has a clear plan. Just 29 percent think the war has decreased the threat of terrorism for the United States. And overall, 51 percent disapprove of his handling of the situation in Iraq. The new Harris poll finds 55 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq is not going well, and the latest from the Pew Center finds 48 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, compared to just 44 percent who approve.
In other words, a majority of Americans tell pollsters they disapprove of the way Bush has handled the war, fear it's making the United States weaker and less safe, that we're getting bogged down, that the rate of casualties is unacceptable, that the war wasn't worth it, and it's not going well, but Bush gets credit for maintaining public support?
As for the jackpot, big-picture question, "Do you think the United States did the right thing in going to war with Iraq, or do you think it was a mistake?", 52 percent say it was the right thing, according to ABC/Washington Post, while 46 percent say it was a mistake. But those numbers are moving south, fast. Since the question was asked 12 months ago, there's been a 31 point drop in "right thing" and a 30 point jump in "mistake," making for a 61 point swing that shows no sign of abating.
Despite the misgivings about Iraq, Americans still like Bush, the plain-talking politician, right? Writing for the Wall Street Journal's online opinion site last week, Peggy Noonan insisted the recent poll results indicate Americans instinctively love Bush: "They can tell that George W. Bush is looking out for America." She stressed his "popularity continues high."
Oh really? According to the latest Gallup/CNN/Time poll, 56 percent have a favorable opinion of Bush, compared to 42 percent who had an unfavorable one. But just three months ago, 65 percent had a favorable opinion of Bush, while just 35 percent were unfavorable, which means there's been a 16-point shift away from Bush already in this young year. Other pollsters have detected a mirror movement away from Bush. Fox News recorded a 21-point swing in the favorable/unfavorable category since January. And in its latest poll, Zogby International recorded the president's lowest personal favorable rating of his presidency, 53 percent.
If such trends continue, with just a few more months of such "popularity" for Noonan's hero and Bush will find himself with a one-way ticket back to Crawford. Remember, the "numbers" may not lie but it's not numbers talking; it's reporters and pundits.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Book on Bush: How George W. Misleads America.