Monday, May 19, 2008

Favorability and Obama

What people know about a candidate is often a summary of lots of facts, emotions, odds and ends, the flotsam and jetsom of how our minds take bits and pieces and create an overall impression. Or, in other words, the infamous "favorability" score.

Take Obama. His favorability ratings have generally improved over time, in part because more and more people learned who he is. In January of 2007, 28% had a favorable rating and 47% didn't have a clue who the guy is. By May 1, 2008, he was up to 44% "favorable" and only 6% hadn't heard of him (CBS/NYT poll).

All well and good, but how about those "negatives" that political pros talk about? He's tripled those, from 10% to 30%, during the same time period.

But what I'm writing about here is something a little different. Look at these set of numbers from two different polls conducted at about the same time about Sen. Obama.

CBS/NYT 44% favorable 30% unfavorable
USAToday/Gallup 58% favorable 37% unfavorable

Why the big difference? Perhaps small issues of sampling and the like, but look at the two questions.
  • Is your opinion of Barack Obama favorable, not favorable, undecided, or haven't you heard enough about Barack Obama yet to have an opinion?" CBS/NYT
  • "Next, I'd like to get your overall opinion of some people in the news. As I read each name, please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of these people -- or if you have never heard of them. How about Barack Obama?" USAToday/Gallup
CBS/NYT gets a higher "haven't heard of" number of 6%, compared to 1% for USAT/Gallup. I suspect the wording effects that a little, but the big difference in favorable ratings really catches the eye. Since "favorability" is a summation of what people know (and feel), I think the CBS/NYT list makes it easier to skip down to unfavorable or undecided or no opinion as compared to the other list. Question wording, then, makes a difference even in something as simple as what you think about someone. Also the CBS/NYT has more options, thus spreading the numbers out across the landscape. There is an "undecided" option not seen in the USAT/Gallup. I think that's vital, because sometimes, we just haven't decided how we feel about someone.

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