The Campaign Spot

A Delayed Public Reaction to Obama Scandals? Or No Reaction at All?

The Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt looks at what it will take for the media to stop giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt on the recent scandals, more egregious behavior at the IRS, and then these thoughts on recent polling:

A Delayed Reaction to Obama Scandals? Or No Reaction at All?

Will the scandals hurt President Obama’s approval rating? National Journal’s Michael Catalini looks at polling history and suggests we may see a delayed reaction within a few months:

A CNN/ORC poll showed that 53 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing. That is about where he stood in April, when the same poll found he had a 51 percent approval rating. A Gallup poll showed 49 percent approved of the job he’s doing, and a Washington Post/ABC survey had his approval rating at 51 percent, nearly the same as his 50 percent rating in April . . . 

The break-in at the Watergate occurred in June 1972, five months before Nixon rode to a landslide reelection, but the scandal did not damage his approval ratings until after two aides were convicted of conspiracy in January 1973. Between January and August, his approval rating dropped from 67 percent to 31 percent after the resignation of his top staffers, attorney general and deputy attorney general . . . 

Ronald Reagan’s approval rating dipped from 63 percent in October of 1986 to 47 percent in December 1986, a month after Reagan organized the special commission to investigate whether arms were traded for hostages as part of the Iran-Contra affair.

I’d note that I’m not sure we can or should compare the media environments of 1974 or 1986 to today. At first glance, you would point out that we’re no longer in an era where the Big Three evening newscasts and the Associated Press wire service dominate the news coverage. Newsweekies had much bigger influence; Newsweek isn’t even around today.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it took two months for Watergate or Iran-Contra to be “digested” by the electorate.

Now there are millions of outlets, ranging from 24-7 cable news channels to talk radio to a million sites and blogs on the Internet. This means that news events and developments are brought to the public’s attention faster, but those events also get overridden and overshadowed by new developments and other news quickly. (The Boston bombings were five weeks ago; doesn’t it feel like it was a long time ago?)

The news cycle moves so quickly, The Flash has trouble keeping up. The argument under the Faster-Feiler theory is that the public is getting better at processing the information quickly. But perhaps that assessment is mistaken. Perhaps the decline of the 1970s and 1980s-era dominant media institutions, and the explosion of other media, haven’t resulted in a uniformly better-informed public. We now seem to be in an era of at least three tiers of news consumption.

News junkies — which probably includes you and me — are aware of what Mickey Kaus called “undernews” — stories that never quite break out of the blogs. John Edwards’ scandal was well-known to most in the political press, but a lot of mainstream media institutions averted their eyes for a long time from the evidence. (Working in the news-gathering profession does not necessarily expose one to undernews, as shown by the woman who didn’t understand why President Obama was joking about eating a dog in his 2012 White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech.)

Somewhere in the middle you’ve got the folks who follow the big headlines, but don’t search out alternative media to get this “undernews.” And then there’s the completely oblivious citizen, who follows no news at all, and ends up spectacularly uninformed, or ill-informed, about what’s going on in his country:

A new survey’s findings show many of the people who say they haven’t decided who to vote for in the race for president are either uninformed or uninterested.

A study by has found only 40 percent of undecided voters know that John Boehner is the Speaker of the House.

A whopping 31 percent don’t know who Vice President Joe Biden is.

In one focus group, one undecided voter said he thought President Obama made a mistake not visiting New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when in fact President George Bush was president at the time.

Good to know that every once in a while, the dolts end up preferring our guy, huh?

So the “undernews” crowd may use these recent scandals in deciding what they think of the president, but the other two groups may not be connecting these stories to the president yet.

When pollsters ask the “how closely are you following [X story]?” question, I find myself thinking of Jimmy Kimmel’s recurring feature when he gets people on the street to answer questions about news events that never occurred. (Admittedly, he’s asking people on Hollywood Boulevard.) His staff found people with strong views about who won the First Lady Debate between Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, people who claimed to have witnessed an asteroid that didn’t reach earth yet, and people giving their opinion on Obama’s decision to appoint Judge Judy to the Supreme Court. (All of those people are presumably eligible to vote.)


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