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.