Over-Interpreting Mundane Poll Results

Have the young turned on Barack Obama? That's the assertion coming out of a poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics, reported in the National Journal with the breathless headline, "Millenials Abandon Obama and Obamacare." "The results blow a gaping hole in the belief among many Democrats that Obama's two elections signaled a durable grip on the youth vote," writes Ron Fournier. In the poll, approval of the President among those 18-29 has fallen to 41 percent. Sounds terrible. But wait—what's his approval among all voters these days? About 41 percent. So is it possible we don't need a special, youth-oriented explanation of the latest movement in the polls?

When there's a change in public opinion, it's tempting to pick out different demographic groups and impose on each of them some unique interpretation of what's happening. Here's what the poll's director told Garance Franke-Ruta: "People are disappointed because they are passionate," Della Volpe said. "They're passionate about government. Passionate about America .... Sometimes the people who are most disappointed by anything, it's because they are passionate and their expectations are so high. So I think those kinds of expectations are just different for younger people for lots of reasons, including the fact that this is their first opportunity to support somebody for president."

Yeah, maybe it's all about the ups and downs of their youthful passion. Or maybe we don't need to go searching for something so specific. Why has Obama's approval dropped? The big reasons are that the economy is still weak, and he's suffered through a couple of months of absolutely atrocious press coverage over the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. When there's bad news for the president, his approval goes down; it's usually not more complicated than that.

Now, if the drop in Obama's approval among young people was significantly different from the drop among everyone else, then it might be worthwhile to figure out what they might be thinking that's unique. But if approval among all age groups is moving in the same direction at pretty much the same rate, the prosaic explanation is probably the right one.

So I guess we're supposed to conclude that there are millions of Millennials out there saying, "My idealistic support of this president has been betrayed! And now I'm going to ... um ... vote Republican?"

I'm not saying many young people who supported Obama aren't disappointed with him. They are. Bus so are many middle-aged people, and many old people, and the reasons for all of their sentiments are essentially the same. He's in a low period right now. If things go well with the Affordable Care Act, and the economy picks up steam, and some other great things happen, then his approval ratings will rise, and you can write a story headlined, "Millennials Flock Back to Obama," as though there was something particularly youthful about the change. And that will be just as misleading.

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