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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Remember back to the campaign? I know, it feels like ages ago. But one of the things we all learned back then is that one really needs to look the preponderance of the polling data to get some idea of where the numbers are headed. The margins of error on individual polls — margins which are in fact much larger than the ones the pollsters report officially — are generally too large to be terribly useful unto themselves.

So far, there have been three sets of polling on health care conducted since Barack Obama’s big speech last Wednesday:

– Rasmussen finds an 7-point bump in support for health care reform — from 44 percent in a poll conducted last Tuesday and Wednesday (essentially all the interviews were completed before the President’s speech began) to 51 percent support based on polling conducted over the weekend.

– ABC/WaPo, on the other hand, identifies just a 1-point improvement in support for the President’s plan versus a poll conducted about a month ago (although their “strongly oppose” number has decreased by 4 points, and their “strongly support” number has increased by 3 points.)

– CBS/NYT re-sampled their panel from 8/27 and 8/28 and found a 12-point increase in approval for Obama on health care after his speech; this is not the same thing as asking whether people whether they support or oppose his health care plan, although the numbers have generally tracked one another fairly closely.

The first thing to notice is that each of these polls has a different jumping-off off point. Rasmussen has begun tracking the health care numbers daily; CBS’s previous poll was about two weeks old, and ABC’s previous poll was about a month old. So these polls are not necessarily contradictory if Obama’s health care numbers had declined from mid-August — when ABC last polled the issue — until the night before his speech. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Obama’s numbers were in decline over that period — most of the damage seems to have been done in July and early August.

If we simply take the three polls at face value and average them together (6.7 points), they in fact point toward a statistically strong likelihood of a bounce. Concluding that there is no bounce on the basis of the ABC poll, as some smart commentators appear to have done, while ignoring the other polling, is not objective, plainly put. There should, however, be plenty more data out before the end of the week to help settle any arguments.

The real question, of course, is not whether there’s been a bounce, but how long-lasting its effects might be. Bounces usually dissipate. That’s why we call them bounces; they go up and they go down. If Obama’s health care polling is back in the low 40s by early next week, well then, who cares if there had been a bounce — it’s entirely an academic question. I’m not yet prepared to render a prediction on this subject, although for a variety of reasons — basically, the GOP having used up a lot of its firepower coupled with Obama having underachieved his overall approval ratings on health care reform — I think the bounce (if there is one) is more likely to have “oomph” than it usually does.

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