The Poll Truth

Over the last few months, the public's attention
shifted dramatically from a single-minded focus on combating terrorism to
concerns about the ailing economy. That's a big and politically significant
change: A bad economy almost always hurts the incumbent president's party in
congressional elections.

While this shift in our collective concern should mean a big advantage for
the Democrats as the 2002 elections approach, you would never guess that from
current press coverage. It seems instead that with President Bush's popularity so
high, the press can't quite believe that politics is moving onto pro-Democratic
terrain. So reporters look around for polling data that will allow them to
downplay the significance of the shift toward Democratic issues.

Take the front-page article by Alison Mitchell in The New York Times from
first Friday in January. In the article, which reported on Senate majority leader
Tom Daschle's speech attacking Republican economic policies, Mitchell declined to
mention the shift in issue salience and in fact implied that Republicans might
even have gained the political upper hand on economic issues. "Democrats,"
Mitchell wrote, "have lost the edge that they gained in the Clinton years as the
party most trusted to start the economy moving."

Trouble is, the party that voters trust most to be effective stewards of the
economy tends to be heavily influenced by long-term partisan judgments; it is a
poor and at best lagging indicator of voter reaction to economic change. For
example, on the question of which party voters trust more on the economy, seven
poll readings from 2001 suggest a relative parity: Sometimes voters said they
preferred the Democrats; sometimes, the Republicans. Neither party appears to
have gained or lost a big advantage on the economy thus far in the Bush
presidency. Moreover, NBC/Wall Street Journal poll data on this same question
from Clinton's second term average out to be about even as well. Contrary to
Mitchell's assertion in the Times, the Democrats of the Clinton years overall
weren't really working with a big advantage to lose.

But that story doesn't jibe with how the press is viewing current politics. So
rather than the real story about the sharp shift in public concerns, we instead
get poll factoids--which are at best deceptive, and at worst inaccurate--that
purport to illustrate the accepted story line: The Republicans, buoyed by the
president, are in ascendance; the Democrats are in decline.

The truth is the reverse, as a look at the survey
data reveals. A
late September poll by Ipsos-Reid, for instance, showed that respondents trusted
the Democrats more than the Republicans by 15 points on jobs and
unemployment--issues that are increasingly urgent as public attention turns from
Osama to the recession. Poll data from Louis Harris show a rapid rise in the
portion of the population who feel directly affected by the recession. And while
less than a fifth of the population say they feel directly affected now, this
number will grow as the recession persists, with predictably adverse affects for
the incumbent presidential party.

Growing worry about the economy is not the only bad news for the
Republicans. Education and health care, both traditionally Democratic issues, are
of increasing public concern. According to Democracy Corps surveys, the
percentage of people concerned about education increased by 7 points, and the
percentage of people concerned about health care increased by 9 points, between
November and December of last year. Health-care problems, of course, are acutely
sensitive to the state of the economy: The number of people concerned with this
issue will increase as more of them are affected by gaps in coverage. And health
care is one of those issues, like Social Security and the environment, on which
the public heavily favors Democrats over Republicans--by an average 18 percent
margin in 2001.

All of this bodes ill for the Republicans. When combined with a domestic
agenda (on tax cuts, the environment, health care, and Social Security) that
ranges from not very popular to just plain unpopular, this doesn't leave the GOP
much besides Bush's status as war president to run on in 2002. And if election
results from throughout the twentieth century are any guide, a war president
provides little help to his party at all [see Ruy Teixeira, " HREF="">Diffident
Democrats," TAP, November 5, 2001].

Maybe the conventional wisdom is right. Maybe the apparent shift in the
political terrain will do much less for the Democrats than history would
suggest. Maybe, because of the war and other factors, such as redistricting, the
power of incumbency, and deep campaign pockets, the Republicans are actually in
good shape. But there's little in the polling data that would lead to that
conclusion. Polling has its limitations, of course, but one thing it is useful
for is testing the accuracy of the conventional wisdom. Now if only the press
would use it that way.