Jonathan Chait

The Rasmussen Problem


Daniel Foster at National Review trumpets a decline in President Obama's approval ratings:

Obama Approval Index Hits New Low

Rasmussen has Obama's approval index — strong disapproval subtracted from strong approval — at -20, its lowest point to date. Obama's overall approval/disapproval split stands 42/56, dragged down by poor grades on the economy and the handling of the BP oil spill.

Are Obama's approval ratings falling? Well, yes, according to Rasmussen. No, according to everybody else:

Rasmussen polling occupies an odd place in the political culture. In the conservative world, it is the gold standard. If you go to a conservative set on basically any random day, you'll see somebody touting a Rasmussen poll. Here is John McCormack at the Weekly Standard touting a poll showing huge support to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Here is Peter Wehner at Commentary doing the same. Rasmussen frequently asks unusual polling questions that produce results almost certainly calculated to demonstrate public support for the conservative position. (Here's one example of a loaded Rasmussen question.) Rasmussen has become a right-wing celebrity. He's the author of a conservative book. This fall he is a featured guest on National Review's cruise, along with other conservative luminaries.

Part of Rasmussen's celebrity status derives from the fact that even his polls on commonly-asked questions skew strongly toward the conservative position. Here, for instance, is Nate Silver's depiction of Rasmussen's measure of party identification:

Rasmussen's role in the public debate is problematic for several reasons. It's not altogether clear what causes him to consistently project results so much at odds with those of the rest of the polling community. But if there is something problematic about his methods, he has little incentive to correct it, because Rasmussen's business model increasingly relies upon maintaining the loyalty of staunch Republicans.

Now, to be perfectly clear about this, it's possible that Rasmussen is right and everybody else is wrong. The safest approach to using polling data is to include all results. The trouble is that Rasmussen can have such large outliers, and it polls so often, that the very inclusion of Rasmussen changes the results. The graph near the top of this item, showing level public approval for Obama, would show a steep dip if it included Rasmussen's findings, the latest of which has Obama sporting a disastrous 42/56 approval rating.

But the more problematic dynamic is Rasmussen's symbiotic relationship with the conservative base. The habitual practice by conservative pundits of quoting only Rasmussen polling reinforces conservatives' overweening certainty that they embody public opinion. It's an important component of right-wing epistemic closure, the Republican base having its own pollster who always tells them what they want to hear. In theory, there ought to be a corrective dynamic. If Rasmussen is wrong about the 2010 elections -- and, again, you can't be certain he will be -- in theory, this would cause Republicans to question their reliance upon his unusual findings. But it's entirely possible that Republicans would simply question the validity of the results themselves. It's massive voter fraud! Obama dirty tricks! Having heard on a daily basis that the American public had rejected the Democrats wholeheartedly, disbelieving the validity of the election results would create less cognitive dissonance.

Of course, one solution would be for the conservative pundits who relentlessly cite Rasmussen's findings to inform their readers that those findings, while not necessarily wrong, represent an outlier among pollsters. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

RELATED: Click here to read Chait's follow-up post about Rasmussen.

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