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“Polls do a great job, in terms of sampling and getting a sense of what people think, but we don’t always know what we think,” Sauter said, “especially when we are confronted with new information.”
“With Benghazi, more and more information will trigger a change.”
Closer to home, disapproval of the Affordable Care Act could be understood if you were put on hold for three days attempting to enroll. And a shift to relief could be understood if you were polled just after seeing a doctor for the first time in a year.
“Attitudes are driven so much by emotion, snap decisions and what we just heard on the radio,” Sauter said. “That’s why we flip and flop. ‘This is how I feel now.’ A few days later, we pop back to where we were.”
No one better exemplifies the darts and laurels of public sentiment than Truman. As president, he enjoyed a stellar postwar approval rating of 87 percent in 1945 before plummeting to 22 percent in 1952.
Reputable pollsters know that approval ratings are not meant to be far-reaching, long-ranging predictions of anything. It’s best if we view them, Schultz and Sauter agree, as “snapshots” of a moment in time.
“If Dayton steps in one mud puddle,” Sauter said, “his numbers will likely change.”
The largely American invention of approval ratings is traced back to the 1930s, but the concept actually reaches back further, to the 19th century and Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker who was fascinated by America “and what the majority believes,” Schultz said.
Since then, we’ve put “enormous faith,” he said, in polls that tell us what we believe, at least for the next 10 minutes.
One thing we can believe is that we are lucky to dodge approval ratings, save the annual job review, Facebook “likes” for our cat video or sassy comment from the back seat of the car.
A 58-percent approval rating, Schultz said, “sounds pretty good, but it means that 42 percent of the people don’t like you. When a politician breaks through the 50-percent level, that’s considered good.
“It’s a bizarre barometer of success.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum