When a NBC/WSJ subsample showed Obama up by 8 points in the battlegrounds, it shaped media coverage for a month—even though existing evidence and subsequent findings suggested those numbers were fairly meaningless. Last week’s NYT/CBS poll could wind up having the same effect on discussions of Obama’s favorability rating.
The survey found that Obama’s favorability rating was just 36 percent—probably the lowest number since he ascended to national prominence—and there are already simmering discussions of whether Obama’s more aggressive ad campaigns have backfired. But the NYT/CBS poll should be treated with caution: It's still far from clear that Obama’s favorability ratings have taken a hit.
Sure, the NYT/CBS poll was bad for Obama. It just wasn’t as bad as it might seem, since NYT/CBS has consistently found Obama with lower favorability ratings. In March, NYT/CBS found Obama’s favorability rating at just 42 percent—far lower than other pollsters. While a drop from 42 to 36 is significant, it's not the same as a drop from 50 to 36. Even more importantly, NYT/CBS’s findings haven’t been matched by other firms—at least not yet. The other periodic surveys conducted in July show that Obama’s favorability ratings are holding steady, although his unfavorable might have ticked up slightly.
Even so, is the Obama campaign taking these new numbers to heart? In the "The Choice," a new ad, Obama looks straight into the camera and appeals directly to voters. The tone is quite different than "American The Beautiful," and some have hypothesized that it's a sign the President is trying to rebuild his favorability numbers after a month of negative ads. That's certainly possible, but there are plenty of other possible explanations, especially since "America The Beautiful" and other negative ads remain on the air. Attempting to game out the Obama campaign's motives based on fragmentary data won't provide clear answers.
New polls might ultimately confirm that Obama’s popularity has taken a hit—perhaps as soon as tonight’s NBC/WSJ poll. But they also might show that the NYT/CBS poll was just a blip, so it would be wise to hold off on proclaiming that Obama’s numbers are faltering.