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“Actual” Support. You Know, From White People

April 29th, 2009 · 12 Comments

Dave Weigel takes a crowbar to a profoundly dumb Byron York column breaking down President Obama’s approval ratings by race. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with asking whether support for a politician or policy is broad-based, or whether the aggregate numbers are masking wildly disparate reactions from different subgroups. We sometimes slip into the habit of thinking of approval ratings as gauging a  unified national mood, as though a 60% approval rating were the equivalent of solid-but-not-overwhelming support from one Joe Public.  But of course, that’s not what it is at all: A policy that wins huge increases in approval from one group while massively alienating another might end up not budging aggregate numbers much at all, but anyone who read that as sign of public indifference to the policy would completely miss what was actually going on.  That’s in principle. In practice, as Dave notes, the upshot always seems to be that somehow minority votes shouldn’t factor into our assessment of what real Americans think. I hope I’m not overreading if I find York’s choice of words here rather telling:

[H]is sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

Except “overall,” the president is exactly as popular as the national polling number. That’s what a national poll measures: popularity overall as opposed to with distinct groups. But that figure, York would have us understand, merely gives an appearance of popularity; if you want to know how popular the policies “actually” are, you have to remove blacks from the sample. Or at any rate, if that’s not what he’s implying, then I’m at a loss as to what his point is supposed to be.  Doubtless we’d see stark variance if we broke respondents down along any number of demographic categories; why is this one interesting? Come to think of it, if this had been a column examining the varying attitudes of different age groups, or different regions, wouldn’t we almost certainly see a few paragraphs in there somewhere  examining why these groups differed in a particular way? (As Dave points out, the obvious explanation is “because black voters lean heavily Democratic, and have done for decades.”) Funnily, York finds these differences significant enough to spend a column on, but evinces a surprising lack of curiosity about what might account for them. He’s just pointing out  a pattern; draw your own conclusions, reader.

Update: According to some other recent polling data, just 38 percent of those with annual incomes above $75,000 approve of Obama’s handling of the budget deficit, while 66 percent of those making less than $30,000 do.  So the affluent are making Obama’s approach to the economy appear less popular overall than it actually is. Or, you know, vice versa. The president gets an impressive 70 percent approval rating from voters under 30, which is clearly making him appear more popular overall than he actually is. Oddly, nobody seems to put it quite that way when we’re talking about these categories.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology


       

 

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sam // Apr 30, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    “Come to think of it, if this had been a column examining the varying attitudes of different age groups, or different regions, wouldn’t we almost certainly see a few paragraphs in there somewhere examining why these groups differed in a particular way?”

    If 90% of a certain other group were big fans of Obama (or the GOP for that matter), I’m sure it would be commented on also. Why so defensive?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Apr 30, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    You seem to have missed the point rather spectacularly.

  • 3 Pug // Apr 30, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

    That phrase is why. What is that supposed to mean?

    His positions “appear more popular than they actually are “. . . when you remove the black people. What kind of stupid thing is that to say?

    How do Republicans look when you remove the white people?

  • 4 magoo // Apr 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    I think this is overblown.

    When Obama was winning 90% of black voters during the primaries in some areas, it was clear to me at least, that he was not a post-racial figure.

    I just read the article and here’s my take: he lists many stats to show the overwhelming racial split on Obama’s performance. Not a dichotomy, mind you (where it’s one racial group hostile to the other) but just a statistically significant gap.

    My attribution to this rather humdrum enumeration of numbers is perhaps a reflexive tentativeness on a pundit (esp a conservative one) when commenting on race. To make the rather prosaic point that blacks overwhelmingly see Obama as effective more than whites, he is beating this horse to death with slow, heavy blows. Maybe the better metaphor would be he’s trying to knock it out, because the column is, as you point out, a soporific.

    I’ve gotten very wary of attributions, mind-reading. I know the lefties have immediately jumped to racism as his guiding, unconscious agenda. You point out his lack of curiosity. I see your point.

    It’s just that attributions tends to reveal more the bias of the interpreter than the interpreted. Which is why I appreciate you trying to look at the rest of the article for supporting/non-supporting evidence of bias.

    But my explanation of this is what I said above, that he’s being cautious and plodding in order to make an unassailable, tedious observation without being called a racist. Ironically, this casts him in racial suspicion.

    I can’t claim to know York’s agenda, conscious or otherwise. I’d have to be more versed in his prior work to sniff out a real pattern of malevolence, and I’m not. This may inform your opinion.

    But having read his article I didn’t see the evil that others did. It seems that York’s point is actually rather mundane. His ‘actually’ is actually pointing out the prosaic fact that one demographic subgroup is pulling up the overall perception of Obama’s net approval.

    It’s not an earth-shattering insight, but it’s also not racism either. It’s merely a commonplace.

    “…That’s in principle. In practice, as Dave notes, the upshot always seems to be that somehow minority votes shouldn’t factor into our assessment of what real Americans think. I hope I’m not overreading if I find York’s choice of words here rather telling.”

    Far as I can tell, I think you’re overreading. I reread the thing and boy it sure is dull, I had to keep fighting the tendency to skim over it. Just not brimming with racial animus, to me. Just boring, repetitive.

    I should point out that York makes a classic, common mistake and doesn’t compare his assertions to the opposite case, namely that other non-black Dems also receive high marks according to a coarse racial grouping.

    This is my beef with pundits, their incredible innumeracy. Because he had a null hypothesis that he didn’t test correctly. I think this too is an obvious point and I won’t belabor it.

    Having written all this as a mild defense of York’s good name,, I’m going to see what York’s response to lefty accusations are. See the bottom of his updated article.

  • 5 magoo // Apr 30, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Well I just read York’s self-defense and not surprisingly, it’s what I thought: these differences are real and noteworthy, period.

    Assuming that York’s data and the additional data showing that this is a feature of minority voting related to Dems in general suggests that the real comparison would be the difference, if any, between black and non-black Dem supporty by black voters. Then you’d see how strong the disparity would be, and this would most likely directly attributable to some sort of black prejudice. (You’d still have to tease out other factors, though, such as Obama’s exceptional charisma.)

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Apr 30, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Well, Dave hits this, and the upshot is that it really isn’t abnormal: Black preference for Dem policies and voters on the order of 90 percent is about par for the course. Check Kerry’s numbers in 04.

    Also, look, polls show that there’s about a 15 point gap between under-30 voters and seniors on Obama’s approval rating, and it’s even bigger on specific issues. Voters with incomes over $75k are a lot more critical of his handling of the economy with voters who make less than $30k—again, gaps in the 20s on numerous issues here. I’m betting you’d find it weird if I told you that high marks from young voters were making Obama seem more popular overall than he “actually” is, or that the disapproval of more affluent voters made his economic policy appear less popular than it “actually” is.

  • 7 magoo // Apr 30, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    “Well, Dave hits this, and the upshot is that it really isn’t abnormal: Black preference for Dem policies and voters on the order of 90 percent is about par for the course. Check Kerry’s numbers in 04.”

    Yes, exactly. I already stated that York’s conclusion is wrong because he didn’t test it right. In my view, he’s not racist but he’s still wrong, because the correct conclusion to draw from his article is that Dems in general get lopsided minority support, not Obama in particular.

    I guess I still don’t see the racism. Calling someone a racist is pretty serious stuff, and I need more than ‘actually.’

    I can see we’re talking past each other though.

    I can’t help feel a growing distance between me and the blogs I used to read faithfully everyday, because this here ain’t doing it for me. Race is such a tough issue to write about and discuss, and it just seems libs seem waaay overconfident that they’re accurate navigators in such tough turf.

    Ultimately though, I think the reason that we’re at loggerheads is because each is confident in our own presuppositions, the stuff that just isn’t there in the York’s article. ‘Actually’ can mean ‘minorities aren’t relevant,’ and it can also merely mean outliers can disproportionately affect mean. Which is it? I guess progs have jumped all over this as clear evidence as to the former.

    Me? It seems like bad literature, reading into it too much. I kept rereading your last graf, trying to feel my way into your (Julian’s) viewpoint, but each time I could feel both views fitting.

    It’s part of the liberal script to make such attributions to conservatives when there is a bit of gray in the overt text. I think they’re looking for it. Racism is the one area that libs can feel immediately to be their turf, where they are the default elect. Repubs are always on the defensive when it comes to race. Likewise for patriotism and being ‘tough on crime.’

    Anyway, I guess we just differ.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // May 1, 2009 at 1:09 am

    “Racism” is an unfortunately blunt term that’s routinely used to cover everyone from Adolf Hitler to the deli owner who’s a little more nervous about the hood kids coming in late at night… and not a term I used here. I don’t have any particular reason to think–and frankly don’t care whether–York is in general an out-and-out bigot; I think there are some dodgy assumptions worth interrogating here.

  • 9 Colin // May 1, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I think that York is mainly guilty of using some rather inelegant language to make his point. That point being that there is a segment of the population whose enthusiasm for Obama is not policy driven.

    If you doubt, just look at the percentage of blacks that think the economy is doing pretty well, which is wildly out of sync with the data.

  • 10 lemmy caution // May 1, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Except “overall,” the president is exactly as popular as the national polling number.

    Right, The York quote makes no sense unless you assume black voters are somehow not as “real” as white voters.

    I don’t think this is necessarily racist. It probably has something to do with prototype theory or something.

  • 11 DNoonan // May 2, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    The point of York’s column was to get people talking about race. Very similar to BIll Clinton’s infamous South Carolina quotes about Obama being the black candidate. York is seeking to marginalize the president. It is what it seems: divide and conquer.

  • 12 adina // May 3, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Since African-Americans voted for Obama at roughly the same levels that they voted for other Democratic presidential candidates in the past, there is no reason to assume that they give preference to black candidates.
    To be fair to York, your analysis addresses a different question; namely, are African-Americans more likely to approve of the job performance of an African-American already elected to power? While my instinct would be “no,” I’ve never seen a study performed on this topic. If this were the case, the data would show that, controlling for the actual voting behavior of African-Americans, they were more likely to approve of the job performance of black politicians than white politicians.

    However, even there, we would have to be careful of other possibilities. For example, it is possible that black politicians who get elected are on average, actually better at their jobs than white politicians. Even comparing the approval rating among blacks versus whites wouldn’t capture this, because the reason for the disparity in both approval and performance could be that white people maintain higher standards for black politicians. If this were the case, approval rating among blacks would actually be the most accurate reflection of actual job performance.

    I think there are a lot of interesting questions here, that ought to be studied (with a lot of uncertainty about jumping to conclusions). I don’t think that Mr. York has any good reason to leave African-Americans out from his analysis, but I don’t think anyone adequately provided the crucial data that would counteract his assumptions on the topic of presidential job approval.

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