Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Lies, damned lies, statistics and polls

By Donna Brazile
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile says we shouldn't put too much stock into recent polls about presidents
  • You must dig deeper, she says, to learn what the polls really say
  • Brazile: Great challenges require long-term solutions; history needs time to marinate

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Mark Twain famously said, "There's lies, damned lies, and statistics." Lord only knows what he would have said about polls.

In modern politics, polls often serve as the canary in the mine -- an early warning signal of danger or trends. But polls can also be used to wag the dog -- diverting attention from something significant.

Quinnipac University's latest poll wags the dog for far-right partisans. It says that "a plurality of voters (33%) think Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II." Republicans are crowing, although perhaps they should be careful about doing so since George W. Bush was second with 28% and Richard Nixon third with 13%.

Those numbers tell us something about the value of popularity polls, media frenzy and our sense of history.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Polls can serve a role in taking the pulse of the country, or forecasting trends and elections. But, as Twain knew so well, context is everything, and it matters how you parse the numbers.

Steve Benen over at TheMaddowBlog did just that, and the numbers tell a different story than the screaming headlines. His chart shows that "best" or "worst" is in the eye of the beholder -- or party.

When it comes to the "best" president, Democrats split their votes between Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and Obama, each reaching double digits. Two-thirds of Republicans said Ronald Reagan was the best, largely ignoring everyone else.

The same happened, in reverse, with the "worst": Democrats split their votes between Bush and Nixon; Republicans "really hate Obama."

So, no surprise: The country is deeply divided on partisan grounds, Democrats share the wealth, and Republicans concentrate their love or disdain.

Round table: Equal pay, worst presidents
Worst presidents poll; Christie on court
Distant cousin calls Obama 'worst'

Digging a little deeper, as David Weigel did at Slate, the poll becomes less triumphal, or panicky, depending on your side of the aisle. "If you look at the crosstabs, the percentage of people calling Obama 'honest and trustworthy' has actually stabilized and risen since 2013; the percentage calling him a strong leader, also stable."

So if the Quinnipac survey doesn't really tell us anything new, why all the hoop and hoopla?

In part because the media have become like sports announcers: Even if nothing's happening, they have to make it sound as if something important is -- so don't change channels or you'll miss something vital.

Attention trumps analysis.

America is inundated with polls. We need a term for being swamped with polls. I would say "poll-arized," but that's already in use to describe our political divisions.

America is being monitored like a test subject in one of those sleep studies. What does it mean for Obama's chances when we have prolonged periods of REM sleep?

Actually, if this country were being monitored like in one of those brain studies, the disturbing thing would be that there would be so many regions that show little or no brain activity at all.

And if you want to talk about polls, check out any recent data on congressional Republicans. Wow, it's bad. At least 85% disapproved of the job Congress is doing, and 70% disapproved strongly. Those people not only want to throw the bums out, they want to change the locks on the Capitol.

Finally, what about our sense of history? Perhaps we can take a lesson from what Obama said to George Stephanopoulos of ABC's "This Week": "What I've learned is I can't operate on a daily news cycle or a weekly news cycle. One of the things you also realize during the course of five years is, if the problems were easy, somebody else would have solved them."

Most of the "great challenges" require long-term solutions. Sometimes we know right away that a policy doesn't work. Often, we don't. History needs time to marinate.

There is a difference between public opinion and public judgment. No one remembers how the American people responded day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month about the decisions that Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower made during the most dangerous decades in American and world history.

But we know now that they did what was right, and we honor them for it.

I think that five, 10, 50 years down the road, we'll be honoring President Barack Obama for ending two wars, stopping the economic hemorrhage and, yes, reducing the number of uninsured.

And the polls won't matter.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT