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In Presidential Polling, Context Always Matters

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows increasing damage to the image of likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But, Stuart Rothenberg writes, when you put some of the numbers in context, the situation becomes much less clear.

It’s as predictable as night following day.

Events drive public sentiment, which then shows up in polling. Then, people who either want to make a splash or more often simply want to drive home partisan talking points use the numbers to proclaim a fundamental shift in public opinion and political reality, regardless of whether there is one.

The latest example of this is the Jan. 22-24 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which, as regular readers of this column should know, is my favorite national survey. I read, respect and consider many other surveys, but I’ll admit a special place in my heart for the survey conducted jointly by Colby College graduate Peter Hart (D) of Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Bill McInturff (R) of Public Opinion Strategies.

The January NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has interesting results, but even they should be seen in context if they are going to be understood correctly.

I don’t for a moment dispute the poll’s numbers, which show growing public optimism, a politically stronger President Barack Obama, damage to the image of likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney and improved prospects for a second Obama term.

But if context is important — and it always is — I’d be cautious about jumping to conclusions on the basis of the most recent Hart-McInturff survey.

There is plenty of good news for Democrats in the recent poll.

Americans are more upbeat now, with 30 percent of respondents now saying the country is headed in the “right direction” and 61 percent saying the “wrong track.” That’s up from 22 percent right direction/69 percent wrong track in December and 19 percent right direction/73 percent wrong track in November.

Not surprising, given that trend, Obama’s job performance numbers have rebounded to 48 percent approval/46 percent disapproval from a low of 44 percent approval/51 disapproval in October and November.

Congress’ approval is down, with only 13 percent of respondents approving of its performance. That’s down from a 22 percent approval in February 2011. That should give Democrats a weapon to use in this year’s campaign.

The GOP brand is much worse than Democrats’.

Almost the same percentage of respondents had a favorable view of the Democratic Party (38 percent) as an unfavorable view (39 percent). On the other hand, they had a much less favorable view of the GOP (31 percent) and a much higher unfavorable opinion (44 percent) of that party.

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