Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Trouble with Approval Ratings

(via memeorandum)

According to Gallup, President Bush's approval ratings have seen a slight uptick recently to a whopping 37%; meanwhile, Congress' approval ratings have seen an even smaller recent uptick to a whopping 22%. Naturally, the right-wing talking heads will take this as a sign that Congress' resistance to the Iraq War has made them more unpopular than Bush, while the left-wing talking heads will argue out that this simply isn't true- Congress' low approval ratings show that people think Congress has cowtowed to Bush on the Iraq War. Who's right? The fact is that we have no idea- these approval ratings are completely and utterly worthless.


Well, as Buck Naked Politics points out, the Congressional approval ratings don't distinguish between Congressional Republicans and Congressional Democrats. Certainly, we can assume that the (disturbingly few) Americans who know that the Democrats control Congress are referring to Congressional Democrats. So this issue only explains part of why approval ratings are worthless.

The bigger issue is that Gallup rarely, if ever, asks voters WHY they approve or disapprove of the President or Congress. Thus, we only get the binary choice of are they doing a good job or not? The trouble is that there are a multitude of reasons why any given person may approve or disapprove of a politician. This is especially the case now, when the biggest issues- Iraq and immigration, along with the administration's view of executive power- are the most divisive and emotional issues. As a result, approval ratings at the moment are particularly worthless, since they don't show any kind of breakdown between people who disapprove of Congress for not fighting hard enough against Bush on Iraq and executive power and those who disapprove of Congress for fighting too hard against Bush on Iraq and executive power. Similarly, it does not show the breakdown between people who disapprove of Congress for being too soft on illegal immigrants, and those who disapprove of Congress for being too hard on illegal immigrants. The divisiveness of these issues has left very little middle ground, yet the fact that Congress and the President are at odds on these issues means that neither side winds up particularly happy.

I might add that the same problems apply to the President's still historically low approval ratings (though I suspect much less so)- they don't tell us whether people disapprove of him primarily because he's been too authoritarian on Iraq and executive power, because he's been too weak on immigration reform, or because he vetoed SCHIP. Nor do they tell us if people disapprove (or more likely, disapproved in the past) of him because the surge was too small or because his administration leaks like a faucet.

One thing that may give us some context, though, is that the most explicitly anti-war Dems with a chance at winning the nomination are also the Dems who poll the best against pro-war Republicans. Certainly this would suggest that independents think the Dems have been too weak in terms of ending the Iraq War. But this is just one possible piece of context to give meaning to a meaningless poll statistic. I am more than sure that a pro-war Republican could find a statistic that would show the opposite.

So my point here is that maybe politicos on all sides should stop giving a rat's ass about Gallup approval ratings. Elected officials in particular would do much better to start focusing on actually doing their jobs as they think is best, rather than as they think will enhance their approval ratings the most.