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Lies, damned lies, statistics and polls

By Donna Brazile
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
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.

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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.

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