In order to cull new election data for our polling database (which you should take a gander at), I frequently will search Twitter with the search term "new poll."
Boy, oh, boy ... I really wish I hadn't done that midweek, when the new national survey from Quinnipiac was released. It was a poll that asked respondents to select their picks as the best and worst president in the United States since World War II. I'll assume you have heard of this poll.
Within milliseconds of the Q poll release, Republican Twitter damnnear broke with gleeful dollops of pure, 150-proof derp. Here are just a few nuggets:
As gleeful as the Obama haters were about the poll, there are any number of reasons why the poll is little more than fodder for their Twitter glee. Its probative value, alas, is pretty close to nil. Follow me past the jump as I explain why.
- "Obama beats Bush as 'Worst President' since WW2 in new POLL TRUTH!! (As we all know, caps lock and multiple exclamation points make an argument unimpeachable)"
- "#IAmthe33Percent : Obama worst president since WWII" (Obama was selected by 33 percent of those polled. Points for cleverness here.)
- "New Poll - Obama is the worst POTUS since World War II. Can he resign now?" (Because of a poll. Mmm-hmm. I'm sure he'll get right on it)
- "New Q poll just out: Useless illegal Kenyan crack-head WORST
(faux) President since WWII." (Um ... well ... nope. I got nothin')
- "We already new this >> Poll: Obama Worst President Since WWII" (Presented without comment)
The funny thing about the heap of attention paid on this Quinnipiac poll is that, for the Democrats, there are legitimately worrisome data points, but the "worst president since World War II" line is not even close to being among them.
The Q poll does have some severely cautionary notes in it for Obama and the Democrats. The president is near his all-time low (with Quinnipiac, at least) in terms of job approval (40/53). What's worse: Obama's numbers on foreign policy and terrorism (a comparative strength of his in the latter half of his presidency, at least in terms of public opinion) are the lowest that they have been in Quinnipiac's series of national polls dating back to 2009.
Furthermore, unlike some polls, a look at the demographic sample of this survey makes "unskewing" this poll very difficult. A D+5 sample, with only a 73-percent white population, is a more than fair sample of a presidential year electorate, let alone a midterm electorate.
But everyone is focused on that "best/worst president" question. Which is lame, because it is a fairly dim measurement of ... well ... anything. Here is why:
1. Incumbent presidents are always going to do bad on this measure
As it happens, this is not the first time Quinnipiac has done this type of survey. They conducted this exact same survey back in 2006.
Let's compare the top three worst, shall we?
"Worst Presidents since World War II (Quinnipiac—2014)Lo and behold—in both cases, the winner was the incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, in 2006, it wasn't even close.
1. Obama—33 percent
2. GW Bush—28 percent
3. Nixon—13 percent
"Worst Presidents since World War II (Quinnipiac—2006)
1. GW Bush—34 percent
2. Nixon—17 percent
3. Clinton—16 percent
In both cases, the top three were the two most recent occupants of the office, and Richard Nixon (i.e. the only guy to be driven from the office in disgrace).
And why, oh why, is this shocking to anyone? It might be breaking news to some folks, but most of us who analyze politics long ago figured out that adherents to the party out of the White House usually work up a pretty strong case of the hates for the sitting president. It's been that way since Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to try to tamp down critics of John Adams, for chrissakes.
Therefore, it should be entirely predictable that 63 percent of the Republicans surveyed picked Obama. Republicans hate President Obama. This is neither breaking news, nor does it say anything about 2014 that we did not already know.
This tendency to only use short-term memory in historical judgment is hardly new. In 2005, Gallup asked respondents to name the greatest president in American history. Reagan and Clinton were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. To call that judgment a bit suspect, given some of the giant figures that have graced the presidency in our two centuries-plus as a nation, would be a pretty ginormous understatement. Yet every poll of presidential greatness/awfulness falls in this predictable pattern.
(Fun fact—in 2011, when Gallup surveyed this question again, an equivalent number of Americans picked George W. Bush and Thomas Jefferson. I kid you not.)
2. All this poll really proves is Republican groupthink.
A very solid reaction to the Quinnipiac poll by Bloomberg's Jonathan Bernstein tells this story well:
On "best president," Republicans are unified around Ronald Reagan: 66 percent pick him, with no one else getting more than 6 percent. Republicans are similarly in agreement on "worst president," with Obama clobbering Jimmy Carter, 63 percent to 14 percent, and no one else better than 5 percent.Among the many half-brained conservative memes in the era of Obama, the one that has the greatest ironic/comedic value is the "ZOMG! You guys think Obama is your messiah!" line. Has there, in American history, ever been a more enduring example of one party's drooling devotion to a singular political figure than the Republican Party's enduring crush on Ronald Reagan? Bear in mind, the man has been out of the White House for a quarter century now.
Democrats, however, have a competitive race for best president: Bill Clinton, at 34 percent, John Kennedy and Obama, at 18 percent. For worst president, Democrats again split between George W. Bush, at 54 percent, and Richard Nixon, at 20 percent.
With Republicans united and Democrats split, the "winners" simply reflect that Republican unity, so Reagan wins "best" and Obama "worst." That would be the case even if Obama was quite a bit more popular.
But Bernstein is right. If you add up each individual president's total, 50 percent of the respondents picked a Democratic president, while 46 percent picked a Republican. But because Republicans nearly unilaterally picked Reagan, he was the runaway individual winner.
The same thing happened in the "worst president" vote: voters split evenly (48-48) on whether they thought the worst president was a Democrat or a Republican. But since Republicans were so lopsided in dinging Obama on this score, he took the overall lead.
At the end of the day, there is not a whole lot in the recent polling data to give fans of President Obama (and Democrats, by extension) cause of complacent optimism. But this particular poll, despite the outsized attention it received, it is certainly not one of those data points that should keep anxious Democrats up at night. It is sideshow material and little more.