Archive | Public opinion

Will the Media Treat Navy Yard Like Newtown?

This is a guest post by my GW colleague Danny Hayes.

*****

In the aftermath of Monday’s deadly rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard, gun control will no doubt surge back into the news. But how long will it stay there?

If the months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre are any indication, the media are likely to lose interest quickly – unless gun control makes its way back onto the legislative agenda.

As has been documented elsewhere, news coverage after mass shootings follows a pattern. In a shooting’s immediate wake, gun control coverage spikes, before receding back into relative obscurity. This happened after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the 2012 attack at an Aurora, Co. movie theater.

But the pattern following Sandy Hook was different, and instructive. The graph below displays the number of stories that included the phrase “gun control” for each week since December 2012. The data come from a search of more than 500 outlets in the U.S. News & Wires database in Lexis-Nexis.

hayes

Like with other shootings, gun control coverage increased dramatically after the Newtown massacre, but tailed off within a few weeks. But in contrast to other cases, gun control arrived back on the front page in early January, when President Obama issued a series of executive actions intended to reduce gun violence.

The president’s influence, however immediate, was short-lived, as media attention fell off through the early spring. It was only in April – when a Senate bill to expand background checks failed to surmount a filibuster – that the issue gained prominence again.

Since the bill’s demise, gun control has largely disappeared from debates on Capitol Hill – and with it, the news. While advocates have continued to push for change at both the state and federal levels (with one group coincidentally on lobbying trip to Washington this week), the national media’s interest has continued to wane. Even Giffords’ nationwide tour in July failed to stop the slide.

This pattern suggests that only if Sen. Dianne Feinstein gets her way, with Congress taking up gun control legislation once again, will a renewed media debate over gun control occur. If political leaders in Washington decide the issue isn’t worth pursuing, the media are likely to turn their attention elsewhere – whether back to Syria, the next NSA intelligence-gathering revelation, or the looming battle over the debt ceiling.

Continue Reading

Larry Summers and Starbucks: can we understand this category more generally?

Reading Sarah Binder’s post on the withdrawal of Lawrence Summers from consideration for a post on the Federal Reserve, I was reminded of our discussion from a few years ago about the similarities of Summers and Starbucks, both of which that are disliked by the left for being too corporate and disliked by the right for being too left-wing.

This made me wonder about the more general category, what other people and institutions have that public-opinion profile. I can’t think of a lot of examples. Bill Clinton, for instance, could have ended up this way, but my impression is that he is liked (even if not loved) on the left, that liberals excuse his centrism because he got a lot done. Similarly, sure, some conservatives were annoyed at the two George Bush for various reasons, but overall I think there’s a clear partisan divide. Nothing like Summers, who was actively opposed by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Continue Reading

Syria vs. Cyrus Redux

Readers of the blog may remember that last week as part of a Twitter discussion with Larry Sabato on how much American public opinion on Syria really mattered, I decided to look at some Google Trends data comparing searches for Syria and Miley Cyrus.  I took a bit of pounding from our readers on the use of Google Trends data to do this, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had the idea to compare the two. Political scientists  and  writing in the Huffington Post compared media coverage of the two and Google Trends data. Their findings:

The odd coupling of these two sensational stories presents a relatively rare, real-time opportunity to assess two popular and closely related conventional wisdoms about the American media and public. The first holds that in their media consumption, Americans prefer entertainment over public policy; sensationalism over substance; and sex over, well, just about anything. The second holds that in order to attract consumers, market-driven media routinely under-report or ignore important issues of public policy—abdicating their responsibility to serve as a watchdog of government—in favor of serving up the steady diet of cotton candy that they believe the public wants. As it turns out, reality is less clear-cut than conventional wisdom. According to Google News, in the week starting August 25 the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio—the number of print and online stories about Syria relative to those about Miley Cyrus—was about 5.5 to 1. That is, there was about 5.5 times more coverage of Syria than of Cyrus. According to LexisNexis, TV news—specifically, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC —had a somewhat lower Syria-to-Cyrus ratio of about 3 to 1 (351 vs. 112 stories), while major newspapers—New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—had a much higher ratio of about 11 to 1 (252 vs. 23 stories). These outlets varied widely in their coverage, and there clearly was no shortage of news about Cyrus’s derriere. Yet, on balance, news coverage focused far more on what people arguablyneeded to know than on what—per conventional wisdom—they wanted to know.

However…

Even with the predominance of media coverage about Syria over Cyrus last week, the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio for Americans’ Google searches was almost the inverse of the Google News ratio: about 1 to 6, or six times more searches for news about Miley Cyrus than about Syria. Score one for the conventional wisdom.

Yet public opinion data suggests that perhaps there were fewer searches for Syria because there was already a lot known about Syria:

A recent NBC News poll (8/28-8/29) shows almost 80% of the public saying that it has heard “some” or “a lot” of news about Syria’s supposed chemical weapons use. While self-reports can be somewhat inflated, the near-80% figure is the fourth highest out of 16 high-profile issues for which NBC has asked the identical question over the past two years.

If that’s not enough for you, Jake Leavy at Buzzfeed put together a whole spread of graphics comparing the two using Facebook’s New Keyword’s Insights API. I would gladly have analyzed some of this data myself – providing Facebook much needed added publicity – but alas, for now the tool is only being rolled out to selected media partners at the moment (hint, hint…).

Continue Reading

The Media Pounds the President: Does it Matter?

President Obama’s speech on Syria has received mostly harsh grades from the media, as has his broader policy in the region so far: if I had a dime for every comment arguing (actually, mostly just stating) the scope of the damage done to Obama, to the presidency, to the United States, to the world, etc., from his handling of the Syrian situation I would have, well, many dimes. Peter Baker’s piece in today’s NY Times sums up the critics as seeing Obama as “feckles[s]…. reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.” In the blogosphere Stu Rothenberg says the Obama administration has been “confused, erratic and in way over its head,” “nothing short of sad,” “inept.”  Joe Klein goes further, calling it “one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence  that I’ve ever witnessed.” (Given that he was around to witness Bill Clinton deal with Haiti, this is saying something; but then Klein also manages to wax nostalgic for the heyday of Henry Kissinger.)  Even the more sympathetic Ezra Klein sums it up as “less George Kennan and more Mr. Magoo.”

So: how much should Obama worry about this?

At least one study suggests, not much. Jeffrey Cohen, in his 2008 book The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News, found that after the 1970s, “no correlation exists between the negativity of presidential news and public approval of the president.”  Before then – Cohen’s quite comprehensive data go back to the 1940s – there was indeed a strong connection, where a negative tone in press coverage was linked to lower approval. (Richard Brody finds this too in his earlier book on Assessing the President.)

Cohen suggests a number of reasons for this disconnect, tied to the broader structure of the “presidential news system”; I will condense them to two:

(1) in the pre-Watergate era, the press coverage of the president, and of government generally, was largely positive. Thus, negative news was a credible signal for the public to follow. When a Harry Truman, or Richard Nixon, attracted negative coverage, people assumed this meant something had changed they needed to take note of. Now, pretty much all coverage of the president is negative, so the public uncouples its sense of presidential performance from news coverage. (“The regularity of negative news makes it hard for the public to tell if the bad news reflects truly bad conditions that it should pay attention to or if it merely reflects the agenda of journalists,” broadly defined.)

(2) this is buttressed by the fragmentation of the media task from broadcasting to “narrowcasting,” thanks to the rise of cable/satellite/internet, etc., along with the shopping of the interested public for news and opinion framed to suit its preferred preconceptions (Obama is good, Obama is bad…): there is less “mass” in mass media, less trust in media generally, and fewer people likely to encounter evidence that would change their mind anyway.

It is of course nearly impossible to isolate the impact of the tone of coverage, especially in one short-term discrete case; how to keep all else equal when events are shifting rapidly (see Putin 2013)? Another twist in the current situation is that the new normal of polarization – where Dems express kneejerk approval, Republicans automatic disapproval, of the president – is complicated by the fact that some of Obama’s more reliable allies on the left are dead set against war in Syria and some in the GOP for it. Still, a quick glance at RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential approval polls suggests they have held steady (the shift from Labor Day to today is from 43.8 to 43.5%). Whether approval itself matters… well, that’s a post for another time!

 

Continue Reading

5 Articles on Military Interventions

So maybe we are going to intervene in Syria, and maybe not.  Either way, these articles are right on point.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for ungating these articles for the next two months.

 

Continue Reading

Threats and Credibility: How Obama’s Decision to Seek Congressional Authorization for Syria May Have Been a Game Changer

The following is a guest post from University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D candidate in political science Roseanne McManus.

*****

In August 2012 and March 2013, President Obama referred to the use of chemical weapons by Syria as a “red line” and a “game changer.”  The evidence appears to indicate that Syria disregarded these warnings, using chemical weapons on a small scale in March 2013 and on a larger scale in August 2013.  However, now Syria has expressed at least initial willingness to give up its chemical weapons.  My research on the conditions for effectiveness of statements of resolve sheds light on the reasons for this change.  Specifically, it suggests that Obama’s threats have recently become more effective because seeking approval from Congress has resulted in a greater observable ability to follow through on them.

A fair amount of political science research has already been devoted to the question of how tough statements can effectively convey resolve to adversaries, despite the incentives for leaders to exaggerate their resolve.  The most prevalent current theories suggest that it is the costs of backing down from resolved statements that prevent leaders from making statements too casually and thus render statements more credible.  These costs might include damage to a leader’s or nation’s international reputation or a decline in the leader’s domestic support.

Clearly, these types of costs exist in the Syria case.  Obama was hammered in the media and by other politicians for his weak response to Syria’s first use of chemical weapons.  Many of Obama’s critics explicitly mentioned the loss of US credibility as a cost of Obama’s inaction.  The fact that backing down from his statements would be domestically and internationally costly for Obama should have been obvious to Syria from the outset.  Yet, Syria did not heed Obama’s warnings.  This suggests that we need to bring other factors into our analysis.

My research, available here, shows that factors related to the costs of backing down are rather poor predictors of whether statements of resolve will be effective at influencing the outcome of international disputes.  Much better predictors are factors related to whether a leader has the observable ability to follow through on statements.  While many theories tend to take a leader’s ability to follow through on statements for granted, I argue that there can be substantial risks and obstacles to following through, such as domestic actors who can block or forestall action (known in political science as veto players) or the danger of domestic backlash if a conflict goes poorly.  Therefore, statements of resolve will only be effective if adversaries can observe that a leader has the ability to overcome these risks and obstacles.  My statistical analysis shows that US presidential statements of resolve have a greater influence on dispute outcomes when the president has a greater ability to follow through on his statements due to a secure political position and/or hawkish domestic veto players.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Don’t be so quick to place politicians’ views of “national interests” above the mood of the public

In a news/opinion article entitled, “What Obama Really Thinks About Syria: The president’s TV interviews reveal the naked truths behind his posturing,” William Saletan writes:

Public opinion trumps national interests. When asked whether he would strike Syria without congressional support, Obama told ABC: “Strikes may be less effective if I don’t have congressional support and if the American people don’t recognize why we’re doing this. So I haven’t made a final determination in terms of what next steps would be.” On NBC, he said he would lobby Congress, deliver a TV address Tuesday night, and “I’ll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we’re willing to move forward. … I’ve made my decision about what I think is best for America’s national interests, but this is one where I think it’s important for me to pay close attention to what Congress and the American people say.” That sounds like a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests.

But we should be careful about so quickly opposing “public opinion” and “national interests.” As political scientist Benjamin Page wrote a few years ago, there are systematic differences between the attitudes of the public and of U.S. foreign policy elites:

Large majorities of Americans favor several specific steps to strengthen the UN, support Security Council intervention for peacekeeping and human rights, and favor working more within the UN even if it constrains U.S. actions. Large majorities also favor the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the new inspection agreement on biological weapons. Large majorities favor multilateral uses of U.S. troops for peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes, but majorities oppose most major unilateral engagements. . . . Analysis of more than one thousand survey questions asked of both the public and foreign policy officials over a thirty year period by the CCGA (formerly CCFR) indicates that significant disagreements between officials and the public have been very frequent . . . Over the years, however, there have also been many disagreements over Defense issues (the public is more reluctant to use troops and more opposed to military aid and arms sales), and even more disagreement on international Economic issues: citizens are more worried about immigration and drugs, and much more concerned about the effects of trade on Americans’ jobs and wages.

Perhaps most relevant to Saletan’s discussion above, Page concludes that this is more of a problem with the experts than with the public, concluding:

Most gaps between citizens and officials appear to have more to do with differing values and interests than with differing levels of information and expertise. To the extent that this is true and that Americans’ collective policy preferences are coherent and reflective of the best available information, there would seem to be a strong argument, based on democratic theory, that policy makers should pay more heed to the public’s wishes.

An interesting insight in Page’s paper is that policymakers may prefer unilateralism because they can envision themselves making the policy and would like more freedom of action. In contrast, citizens in general have a more distant perspective that might actually be more realistic—-given what we know from research in psychology about “the illusion of control.”

What Saletan calls “a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests” might better be characterized as a wise decision to go outside the unilateralist foreign policy consensus.

Continue Reading

PPP’s baffling discard process

B. J. Martino writes:

Earlier this summer when I went on a bit of a rant about PPP and their process of discarding interviews, rather than simply weighting data. Mark Blumenthal mentioned your response to the discusion in one of his posts, where you said you were a bit “baffled” by it.

While they claim to engage in the discard process as a kind of retroactive quota to account for more older, white women in their sample, it was the discards among the non-”older white women” that made me curious. That is, any respondent who was not meeting all criteria of being age 46+, white and female.

I downloaded the data from all their 2012 surveys for Daily Kos/SEIU, and compared the sample of non-”older white women” within the unweighted released data as well as the discarded data.

At least from the first six surveys I have looked at, there appears to be a consistent difference in the partisan composition of the released data and the discarded data for this group. In every case, the released data for this group was net Democratic in Party ID (Unw D-R), and the discarded data was net Republican (Dis D-R).

Party ID in PPP Polls for Daily Kos/SEIU- Non-”older white women”
(raw unweighted data and discarded data)




























































 

Unw Sample



Discarded Sample



Unw D-R



Dis D-R



Unw- Disc



25-Oct



968



335



6.5%



-1.5%



8.0%



12-Oct



1100



302



6.5%



-8.6%



15.1%



4-Oct



922



356



5.1%



-19.7%



24.8%



27-Sep



763



277



10.2%



-8.6%



18.8%



20-Sep



829



236



12.0%



-18.2%



30.2%



13-Sep



699



267



8.7%



-7.9%



16.6%



What this suggests to me is that the discard process is both a way to apply a retroactive quota to older white women, but also a way to fix the partisanship from another group (assuming this is primarily younger voters). My thought is that they are getting too Republican a sample in this group because they never dial cell phones.

I found it interesting that despite hanging their hat on being the most accurate of 2012, they announced today that they would be working to find a way to include cell phones in the future.


Martino continues:
As I told Mark, I’m not really interested into getting into a shouting match with PPP. It has always just kind of dumbfounded me how they work. The fact that Daily Kos/SEIU published all the raw data from PPP’s 2012 polling at least gave me some opportunity to figure it out.

I guess the troubling part is how they have repeatedly stood by the statement that they do not weight for Party ID, when this discard process would seem to indicate a de facto weight on Party ID for at least a portion of the sample. What they say is strictly true, but the effect is the same. Seems to be arguing semantics.

I also took a look at the Presidential ballot for this same group of non-“older white women.” Same effect, perhaps even a bit more pronounced.

Presidential Ballot in PPP Polls for Daily Kos/SEIU- Non-older white women
(raw unweighted data and discarded data)




























































 

Unw Sample



Discarded Sample



Unw O-R



Dis O-R



Unw- Disc



25-Oct



968



335



4.2%



-11.6%



15.8%



12-Oct



1100



302



-0.4%



-19.2%



19.6%



4-Oct



922



356



-0.4%



-30.4%



30.8%



27-Sep



763



277



10.3%



-11.2%



21.5%



20-Sep



829



236



9.7%



-22.1%



31.8%



13-Sep



699



267



6.3%



-15.0%



21.3%



 

I don’t really have anything to add here; it’s just an interesting story. I remain amazed that anyone would think it’s a good idea to throw away survey interviews that have already been conducted.

Continue Reading

How Slavery Changed the US South

Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen find in a new paper that if it weren’t for the legacy of slavery, white Southerners today would be politically indistinguishable from Northerners.

Drawing on a sample of more than 39,000 southern whites, we show that whites who currently live in counties that had high concentrations of slaves in 1860 are on average more conservative and express colder feelings towards African Americans than whites who live elsewhere in the South. That is, the larger the number of slaves in his or her county of residence in 1860, the greater the probability that a white Southerner today will identify as a Republican, express opposition to race-coded policies such as affirmative action, and express greater racial resentment towards African Americans. We show that these differences are robust to a variety of factors, including geography and mid-19th century economic conditions and political attitudes. We also show that our results strengthen when we instrument for the prevalence of slavery using local measures of the agricultural suitability to grow cotton. In fact, our findings indicate that in the counterfactual world where the South had no slaves in 1860, the political views of white Southerners today would be indistinguishable from those of similarly situated white Northerners.
Continue Reading

How Much Does Public Opinion on Syria Matter? How Much Will It?

Syria_v_Miley

The chart above comes from Google Trends, and the message is clear: even at the height of the US’s ostensible march towards military engagement in Syria – remember, all signs pointed towards military action last weekend until Obama’s surprising decision to seek Congressional approval – more Americans were using Google to get information about Miley Cyrus than Syria.

I was moved to compare the two after some discussion on Twitter this evening prompted by Larry Sabato’s reporting of a Reuter’s poll showing support for military action in Syria hovering somewhere around 20-30%.

The question I want to raise is the extent to which this might ultimately matter. There are two ways to think about this. The first is whether public opinion is going to influence whether the US actually launches hostilities against Syria. Here, I think public opinion mattered in so far as it may have played a role in getting Obama to seek Congressional approval in the first place – although personally I think the lost vote by Cameron in the UK was probably more important – but at this point the ball is probably in Congress’s court. It is certainly possible that a huge swing in public opinion could have an effect on the forthcoming vote, but my guess is 20% support vs. 40% support doesn’t make all that much difference at this point. The Senate is likely going to vote to approve in any case, and the House dynamics are going to follow district level concerns more than national ones. I’m sure we can find a few people who might flip because of trends in national public opinion, but I’d need to be convinced by someone who knows more about individual US legislators than I do that this could actually swing a vote.

But the more interesting question is whether the low public support for military action would actually have an effect down the road on either Obama’s ability to govern or the political fortunes of individual legislators. Here I am skeptical – conditional on this being the limited, aerial engagement that is being discussed now and not having some unexpected escalation occur – that Americans will actually not care all that much in the future if Obama launches a limited number of missiles at Syria. (hence the teaser figure above).

Consider the following thought experiment: if Benghazi had not taken place, then would there be any discussion of the rest of the Libyan events playing a role in American public opinion today? And Libya will – most likely – end up involving more military involvement than seems likely in Syria.

Then perhaps ironically, from a public opinion standpoint what now seems to matter here is the fact that a vote actually has to be taken in Congress more than the action that might result from that vote. As Sabato pointed out to me in a conversation we continued off of Twitter, it is possible that the vote could cost certain incumbent House Republicans in the coming 2014 primaries. And the point has been repeatedly raised that it would be a major political setback for Obama were he to lose this vote in Congress. So in a sense, we go through the looking glass: foreign policy has the potential to “matter” from a public opinion standpoint only because it has been converted into domestic politics: Is Obama losing strength in the second term? Are certain conservative members of the House conservative enough? My guess is these questions will reverberate in American political discussion longer than whether it was appropriate for Congress to authorize (should it choose to do so) and the President to execute low-scale military action despite underwhelming support on the part of the American public.

Continue Reading