But just how surprising is Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, a state Presidential candidates largely ignore because it always votes Democratic? For anyone following the polls for the past eight months the short answer: not very. That’s because the Massachusetts elections is as much a story about health care and the economy as it is a story of data blindness and how it damaged the purring Obama machine.
The first signs of trouble appeared in April. Back then, the nation was in the grip of Obamaphoria and party-pooping commentary was definitely unwelcome. To recap: April was the month when everyone began writing about “little green shoots” in the economy, a nascent recovery! The stock market was already one month away from its lows; Treasury was preparing a stress test that would once and for all reveal who was solvent and who was not among the nation’s banks. As another hugely popular president once said: It was morning in America again.
No surprise, then that an April NYTimes/CBS poll showed that Obama commanded an impressive 61% approval rating. The NYTimes shouted the news, obliterating the pesky details in the wide-ranging poll that while voters really liked Obama (What a surprise! After four months would voters turn on their historic choice?), they were quite divided on whether they supported his agenda. I pointed out back then that if you skipped passed the cheerleading there were some important concerns about spending :
Even while in the throes of a global financial crisis, Americans are in a statistical dead heat on whether to stimulate the economy by spending more money even if that means deepening the deficit (45%) or whether the Administration should focus on reducing the budget and the national debt (46%). Further, a whopping 63% of those participating in the poll said they were “very concerned” that the growing debt load would “create hardships for future generations of Americans.” Another 28% said they were “somewhat concerned” about leaving a legacy of debt. In other words, 91% of those polled aren’t comfortable with the ballooning national deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will reach $9.3 trillion between 2010 and 2019, $2.3 trillion more than White House estimates.
Those pesky details got buried. It was good to feel good again after eight long years in the desert. And it was just at this juncture that the White House and the Congressional Democrats began what Peggy Noonan last weekend called the disconnect between their agenda and voters. The Administration missed a critical moment. It had confused popularity with support; it fell prey to what I called the Sally Field moment. Oscar in hand she had declared: “”You like me, right now, you like me!” The operative phrase is “right now.” The historic and decisive victory in hand, Team Obama had assumed they could plow ahead with their agenda and the public would come along, even if grudgingly. “I won,” Obama reportedly said to Republicans who dared to challenge the newly-minted president last January.
The dis-ease with the spending programs gained momentum in June from two new polls I wrote about as well. Again to recap: By early summer the stock market rally was in full throttle. Consumer sentiment was on the way up. The green shoots were looking like little bushes and most of the banks had passed a placebo stress test from Treasury with flying colors. The stock market rally was in full blossom. Unemployment was still a single-digit number. And the health care bill was still inchoate, just a Rorschach for everyone’s hopes.
But the statistical dead heat in the June polls had become a Massachusetts-style shocker: deficit concerns now took precedence 52% to 41%. Further, the Times reported that six in ten respondents in its June survey didn’t believe that the Administration had a game plan on how to battle the ballooning debt — including 65% of independents, the very same group that powered Scott Brown’s victory and the Republicans in New Jersey and Virginia.
Now, on the eve of Obama’s first year anniversary, his party has swallowed a massive defeat in a state he carried with 62% of the vote. And this election wasn’t even close. Brown smashed Attorney General Coakley 52 % to 47% — very similar to the Obama – McCain matchup: 52% to 46%.
The disaffection of independents with the Obama agenda — from health care to cap and trade to the economy — is just one way to write this story:
Nationally, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Mr. Obama’s job-approval rating among independents stands at 41%. That’s a 12-point drop from his performance on Election Day in 2008, when he won 52% of independents, and a near-20-point decline among that group from the heights of his popularity soon after taking office.
Put another way, data blindness did in Team Obama. Obama and his supporters were assuming that just because they had won the night on November 4 that they had won whatever lay ahead. The poll numbers were signaling something different and more complex. This post is not just about “I was right” but about the way our beliefs skew our interpretation of numbers. It’s something I encounter all the time in my musings on the economy. Numbers can tell a story — but it isn’t so easy to know just what the story is. Sometimes polls tell more about the pollsters than about the respondents. The government reports on the economy tell all kinds of stories. Sometimes they reflect the contorted theories of economists or push an agenda. That’s why the numbers, especially during these perilous times, feel so out of sync with the lives of many, many individuals. Just ask anyone dependent on social security checks. This year they wont’ get an inflation adjustment because the official government measure said it was zero — and in a year in which oil prices doubled.
In Obama’s inaugural year, Democrats rejected numbers that pointed to weakness, even going so far as to challenge the pollsters and their results rather than asking the hard questions: Are the numbers correct? Do they tell a story we need to hear? For example, earlier this month one editorialist wrote:-
Democrats are turning their fire on Scott Rasmussen, the prolific independent pollster whose surveys on elections, President Obama’s popularity and a host of other issues are surfacing in the media with increasing frequency,” reports Politico.com. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman complains that Mr. Rasmussen phrases polling “questions in a way that supports a conservative interpretation of the world.” That’s why Rasmussen’s approval numbers for President Obama tend to be about five points lower than those of other pollsters, he says.
Rasmussen’s record is quite accurate — and he doesn’t work for political parties, unlike Mellman. And the Democrats are still turning a blind eye to what is in front of them. After last night’s election results came in, Mellman told the WSJ:
“”In a different political environment, this race wouldn’t even have been competitive,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who surveyed Massachusetts for his party. “And it’s the economy that’s made this political environment.”
Maybe. But so what? When you’re President you have to deal with what is and not what you hope for. Can’t change that.
Sometimes defeat can be the best teacher: The real question is just how willing is Obama willing to learn — a question fellow T/S contributor Bill Dupray also asks? Will Obama take a cue from Bill Clinton, the ultimate comeback kid, or will he end up like Jimmy Carter, alone, pacing the White House, waiting for the hostages to be freed?
The funny thing about the numbers is that they can change — if leaders read them honestly and carefully. Will our leaders adapt? Will they re-work health care reform — something Americans desperately need and want — into a more acceptable format? Will Obama set aside the costly cap-and-trade until he has tackled the economic agenda? Will he listen? This story is still young.