At some point, Sir Issac Newton is right, right?

Our friend over at Pollster.com, Mark Blumenthal, took an in-depth look at a question on the NBC/WSJ poll done by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff in a post entitled “When Does Gravity Begin for Obama.” From Mark’s post:

The point, again: Polls are best at providing snapshots of current attitudes, especially under hypothetical conditions. Results can mislead us when pollsters ask respondents to predict future attitudes and when we take their answers too literally.

I had a hunch that McInturff shared my skepticism, and he confirmed that intuition via email:

This is not a question we can ask the electorate confident they really know the answer. It would be interesting to track attitudinally, but not determinative. Voters do not “know” and will not accurately predict when, in aggregate, this economy becomes “his” in the public’s mind, but all previous research suggests at some time it will.

McInturff suggests that the so-called “right direction wrong track” question” provides a better way to watch Obama’s potential to sustain his current approval ratings. The latest NBC/WSJ poll showed showed a twenty-nine point increase since the election (from 12% to 41%) in the percentage of Americans saying the nation is “generally headed in the right direction” rather than “off on the wrong track” (a trend confirmed by others polls as illustrated by our right direction/wrong track chart). Most of that increase came from Democrats.

In Laura Meckler’s Wall Street Journal poll story, McInturff explains the implications:

Typically, he said, presidential approval ratings hover about 20 percentage points above the national “right direction” number. With that figure at 41%, he said, Mr. Obama’s approval rating, at 60%, is sustainable and high enough to allow for major victories.

The key question, as McInturff frames it, is whether the “right direction” number will remain at or near 40%, or whether it will recede back to the 25% measured by most surveys in late January. A 25% right direction number would provide “a major barrier” to Obama sustaining his current approval rating. If that number remains at or near 40%, however, Obama could maintain a job approval rating in the high 50 percent range. So, he says, “let’s wait and see if [the right direction number] can be sustained at this high level given the very serious economic news.”

The article is well worth a read, as Mark checked in with Bill and they both shed some valuable light on predictive polling.

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