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When Polls Conflict: What Political Gauges Mean


If you paid any attention to the polls this past week, you might have come away pretty confused. For example in one survey, a plurality of Americans said that they disapproved of President Obama's performance by a wide margin. Another poll showed just the opposite.

To explain why polls taken during the same period may give conflicting results, we're joined by Andy Kohut. He's the president of the Pew Research Center.

Andy, thank you so much for coming in.

ANDY KOHUT: Happy to be here.

LYDEN: You know, the news of the variance of these polls this week was almost as compelling as what they had to say.

KOHUT: Yeah. I think so. They are less variant than they appear, in part because The New York poll, which got a lot of attention, was so different than the rest of the other polls and so different than their previous poll. They had 41 percent approving of Obama, we had 50 percent, Gallup had 49 percent, NBC had 50 percent, and then ABC Post had a slightly lower number, 46 percent, which, however, was lower than they had a month ago. So there's, there really was something going on with these polls.

LYDEN: Well, so tell us what happened.

KOHUT: Well, it's not a reflection of differences in methodology. These are all pretty rigorous polls, as public opinion polls go, that are taken in a relatively short period of time. And they generally agree. In fact, a month ago, there was not more than two points difference between the highest and the lowest on percent approving of Obama.

I think what's happened is during a time in which people are changing their minds about a subject - in this case, President Obama - their conviction isn't very high. So someday you call them up and they're feeling better about Obama and they approve. The very next day you might call the same person up and say, well, I heard, you know, I'm not so convinced, and you get a different number.

When opinion is stable, the polls are stable and it's not stable. We've seen opinions of the president improve. The slope of the line is positive since December, but people are going to have second thoughts about their reconsiderations of the president.

LYDEN: Well, you are the president of the Pew Research Center. Where does this poll - your poll - put the president relative to his Republican challengers?

KOHUT: He puts - our poll puts him considerably ahead of Romney - 54 to 42, and even more ahead of Rick Santorum - 57 to 39 percent. and most of the polls are showing - not all of them, but most of them are showing Barack Obama with either a big lead or a marginal lead. None of them are showing Romney or Santorum ahead of Obama at this point. And now that's different. Back in November, when we were testing President Obama against Romney, Santorum wasn't in the picture then...

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

KOHUT: ...the scores were about even. So there is an upward movement toward the president in terms of his job approval, but also in terms of how he looks relative to these Republicans. In part, that reflects people feeling somewhat better about the economy and in part it reflects people feeling somewhat worse about the Republican candidates.

LYDEN: What is the disapproval rating, if you will, with the Republicans running for the presidential nomination?

KOHUT: We have a large majority, or a significant majority of people saying they have an unfavorable view of the Republican field. We have even a majority of Republicans saying that the field is only fair or poor. We see Mitt Romney's favorable ratings falling to 29 percent. When he first started out in the campaign, when people were first paying attention to him back in June of last year, he was at 40 percent. Twenty-nine percent favorable is a pretty rough number for a person running for president of the United States.

LYDEN: So, you've been doing this a long time. Is there anything you think these candidates could do to improve their standing with voters this fall?

KOHUT: I think they will improve their standing when they're not saying negative things about each other on a daily basis. So that'll help. I think the Republican base will begin - the independents who lean Republican will begin to get behind the Republican candidate to a greater extent. And elections are generally referendums on the times, and the times are not good, and at best, mixed. So this figures to be a reasonably close election. The Republicans should be in better shape than they are, given how few people feel positive about conditions. But they've hurt themselves, and Obama has gotten some good news going for him on jobs.

LYDEN: That's Andy Kohut. He's the president of the Pew Research Center.

Andy, thank you so much for coming in.

KOHUT: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.