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 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT