Politics and the “Last Call” Theory of Public Opinion

Thursday, February 16, 2012

President Obama and his crew are very excited by recent polls showing that 50% of the people have a favorable opinion of his performance as President. Only in the wacky world of politics would a 50% approval rating seem like good news. Put another way, the other 50% of the American people think the President sucks at his job. ..Okay, “sucks” may be too strong a term, but I’m trying to make a point. It’s the old half full, half empty dilemma. How would you feel if your employer or lover gave you a 50% favorable rating?

The sad news is that the President may actually think that he’s gaining popularity in recent polls because the economy is getting better, and that it’s getting better because of his programs. Really? Careful, Mr. President, that you don’t succumb to the tendency of all politicians to believe their own hype.

The economy is getting better at an historically slow pace characterized by the re-employment of many who are going back to work at a fraction of what they had been earning, doing jobs requiring skill levels well below their experience and expertise. This is not a good recovery that anyone should want to take credit for producing. More to the point, the President’s programs have had very little if anything to do with it. The economy is not something our President and conventional government policy can influence to any significant extent. That the people would be encouraged by their government to think otherwise is nothing short of a scam – particularly when you’re working through a recession in which the very structure of our economy is at play. This recession has not been a routine business cycle downturn. Far from it.

So why have the President’s approval ratings gone up recently? Is it because he tells us he’s God’s gift to government and we believe him? Of course not. That would be an example of “absolute popularity,” a term I just coined. (Blogger’s prerogative. It’s my blog and I’ll make up stuff if I want to.) Absolute popularity occurs when a person gains popularity because of his or her own achievements (real or perceived), independently of the behavior, attributes and accomplishments of any of his rivals for the spotlight. It can happen, an absolute increase in popularity, but that’s not what recent polls have been measuring.

As a rule, the more dramatic, the more rapid the rise in popularity, the less “absolute,” individual performance has anything to do it. Wonder why the polls have been all over the place, so volatile this election season? It’s because what the pollsters are measuring when they ask their questions is not the public’s opinion about one candidate at a time. It’s about the public’s opinion of each candidate relative to the others. It’s a fine, but not trivial distinction.

President Obama’s popularity is up, strangely enough, for the same reason that Rick Santorum’s popularity is rising, and Newt Gringrich’s before him, and Herman Cain’s and Rick Perry’s. The reason is “relative popularity.” That’s what the polls are measuring. What all four of them have in common is that, even though they are horribly unqualified to be President, they have been the beneficiaries of the usually short-lived phenomenon which I’m in the process of describing.

Relative popularity is, first and foremost, circumstantial. It occurs not because of any absolute measure of performance, or because people genuinely know anything favorable, if anything at all about the candidate, but because of how people perceive the candidate relative to his or her competition in the context of their evaluation. At 2 AM, for example, every guy and girl left at the bar, figuratively speaking of course, is funnier, better looking and more generally desirable than when they first got there and the place was crowded with prospects that really were attractive.

My simple point is that the candidacy of Herman Cain never ever made any sense except to the extent that, until people realized what a buffoon and letch he was, he was more attractive as a candidate than his competitors who were, for the moment, relatively unattractive. Cain’s fleeting appeal as a candidate was only relative to how his competition was perceived at the moment, not because he was inherently, individually qualified to be President. And the proof? The proof of my point is in the brevity of his standing. In the metaphor of “the last call,” he didn’t look nearly as good in the clean sunlight of the morning after than he had the night before.

At some point, hopefully well prior to the their convention, Republican voters will realize that Rick Santorum, like his predecessors this primary season, is wholly unqualified to run for the office of President, let alone be one. And, if they don’t, Mr. Santorum will be President Obama’s Goldwater in November, and that will be that.

Not incidentally, Romney’s behavior in the polls has been relatively stable, if unimpressive, a sign that his supporters are making an absolute, as opposed to a less meaningful relative judgment of his capabilities.

So why exactly is President Obama’s popularity rising in the polls? Certainly not because he’s turning out to be the great reformer, the great leader he promised when he ran for office the first time. Quite simply, it’s because his competition seems so ridiculous, so petty, confused and generally unappealing. It’s 2 AM and we’re down to only a few choices to be our next President. How depressing. It’s already been a long night, we’re tired and President Obama is looking pretty good compared to the other losers at the bar, better now than he will in the morning.

-wf

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