It’s possible, of course, that Obama’s approval ratings will decline, but the evidence does not currently support such a claim. The fluctuations seen in Obama’s Quinnipiac approval ratings are likely attributable to random sampling error—the precise reason we use polling averages in the first place! As both CJR’s Greg Marx and I showed back in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the temptation to tell stories about how major events are affecting presidential approval using outlier polls is strong, but should be resisted.
Thankfully, some reporters appear to have learned their lessons from the demonstrated superiority of polling averages during campaign season. Before the Quinnipiac poll even hit, Steve Kraske of The Kansas City Star wrote an excellent May 24 story on how “the country’s view of President Barack Obama looks to be set in concrete,” which reviewed a broad array of survey evidence.
Similarly, several reporters offered necessary context from other polls in their coverage of Quinnipiac’s results. Politico’s Kevin Cirilli, for instance, led his story with a narrative-based take (“President Barack Obama’s approval rating took a hit amid three controversies surrounding his administration”), but included a clear and significant caveat for readers in his fourth paragraph:
Quinnipiac’s results stand in contrast to Gallup, which has found that Obama’s approval rating has gone largely unchanged since the IRS scandal and other controversies. According to its Gallup Daily Tracking poll, the president has a 50 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier was even more cautious. His story opened with the question—“Is political controversy dragging down President Obama’s approval rating?”—and included this caveat, which explicitly cited (and linked to) another polling average:
It’s important to note, however, that this is just one poll. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls still has Obama’s rating above water (barely), with 48.7 percent approving of his actions and 48 percent approving.
Most notably, however, CNN’s Ashley Killough wrote an online story that covered the results from new questions in Quinnipiac’s poll, but reported on a simple (and CNN-branded) averaged version of Obama’s approval rating instead of Quinnipiac’s numbers. This unique approach allowed her to offer a more cautious and systematic evaluation of the evidence than any other report:
As for President Barack Obama, his job approval rating stands at 49% in a new CNN Poll of Polls, which averages the six most recent nonpartisan, live-operator national surveys of the president’s approval rating; 46% said they disapprove. The polls were conducted in the past two weeks, after the IRS and AP controversies made national headlines. The president’s rating stands little changed from the CNN Poll of Polls conducted over the whole month of April, which showed the approval-disapproval split at 49-47.
CNN’s journalistic credibility took a beating during the Boston bombings investigation, but this is one case where the struggling cable network is at the leading edge.
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