An interesting debate about polling samples is underway this afternoon in the wake of a very encouraging new set of figures for President Obama.

The figures come from a new and widely cited AP-GfK poll released today that shows the president’s approval rating hitting its highest point in two years (on the AP-GfK poll): 60 percent. That’s a significantly bigger bump (from 53 percent in March) than has been noted by several other polls and fits more in line perhaps with conventional thinking about the kind of boost the president would receive after giving the order to take out Osama bin Laden. (The Times polling guru Nate Silver has a nice summary and discussion of Obama’s post-Osama poll numbers here.)

Here’s how the AP presents the latest poll findings in its report:

President Barack Obama’s approval rating has hit its highest point in two years—60 percent—and more than half of Americans now say he deserves to be re-elected, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll taken after U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

In worrisome signs for Republicans, the president’s standing improved not just on foreign policy but also on the economy, and independent Americans—a key voting bloc in the November 2012 presidential election—caused the overall uptick in support by sliding back to Obama after fleeing for much of the past two years.

Comfortable majorities of the public now call Obama a strong leader who will keep America safe. Nearly three-fourths—73 percent—also now say they are confident that Obama can effectively handle terrorist threats. And he improved his standing on Afghanistan, Iraq and the United States’ relationships with other countries.

The report has been doing the rounds, from NPR to Gawker. But conservative online media outlets have locked on to something that may discredit the gleaming 60 percent headlines: the AP-GfK’s sample was heavily skewed toward Democrats and few of the reports on the approval rating are noting as much.

Here’s what conservative blogger Ed Morrissey had to say in a Hot Air post headlined, “And the award for most ridiculous poll sampling goes to…”

The Dem/Rep/Ind breakdown in this poll is 46/29/4, as AP assigned most of the leaners to the parties. That is a 17-point gap, more than twice what was seen in the 2008 actual popular vote that elected Obama. It only gets worse when independents are assigned properly. When taking out the leaners, the split becomes—I’m not kidding—35/18/27. Oh, and another 20% “don’t know.” That’s significantly worse than the March poll, in which the proper D/R/I was 29/20/34, and far beyond their post-midterm sample of 31/28/26. It’s pretty easy to get Obama to 60% when Republicans are undersampled by almost half.

At National Review’s Campaign Spot blog, Jim Geraghty asks: “With a poll sample that has a 17-percentage-point margin in favor of the Democrats, is anyone surprised that these results look like a David Axelrod dream?”

These pugnacious bloggers have a point.

Compare the samples in the May poll and the March poll and indeed the numbers in the later poll favor Democrats by a significant degree—46 percent lean Democrat, 29 percent Republican, and 4 percent independent for May; for March, 45, 33, and 4. For context, in May 2010, the divide was 45, 39, and 2.

Now, not being Nate Silver or a poli-sci wonk of any stripe, it’s difficult to say how significant these kinds of sample differences are, both in reading the latest results in isolation, in reading them against previous AP-GfK polls, or reading them against other polls quantifying what’s being called the “Osama bump.” And perhaps the direction in which respondents decide to tell interviewers that they lean is as contingent on elements like an “Obama bump” as is the way they decide to respond on the question of presidential approval (and thus, the sample make-up might actually be as reflective of the national mood—and not just the Democratic mood—as the approval rating it provides.)

What is certain is that the sample difference in this instance between Republicans and Democrats is significant. And for a fuller understanding of the poll, what it might be reflecting about the national opinion, and for pure context, this difference warranted some mention in the reports that have the White House smiling today.


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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.