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Election 2012: Survey-Based Metrics That Matter Most

Election 2012: Survey-Based Metrics That Matter Most

The Presidential Election Trial Heat

The question: Suppose the presidential election were held today. If _______ were the Democratic Party's candidate and _______ were the Republican Party's candidate, who would you vote for?

The frequency: Gallup is now periodically tracking trial heats between Democrat Barack Obama and the top two leading contenders for the Republican nomination. Gallup will begin daily tracking of this measure, using seven-day rolling averages, once the GOP race narrows to two candidates or to the final candidate, depending on the timing. Gallup will report trial heat results for registered voters until October 2012. In October, Gallup will start reporting trial heat results based on registered voters and likely voters.

The history: Gallup first asked the trial heat ballot in the 1936 election race between Franklin Roosevelt and Alf Landon. Gallup has asked Americans for whom they plan to vote "if the election were held today" in the lead-up to every election since.

The value: The presidential trial heat is the most direct measure of where an election stands in advance of Election Day. Trends in the trial heat provide insights into the dynamics of the presidential campaign early in an election year and are an accurate indicator of the eventual election outcome as Election Day approaches.

Presidential Job Approval

The question: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?

The frequency: Gallup tracks President Barack Obama's job approval rating daily and reports the results in three-day rolling averages.

The history: Gallup has measured presidential job approval ratings since the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Through 2007, Gallup asked Americans about their approval of the president in more than 1,300 separate surveys. Gallup began tracking presidential job approval daily in January 2008, and now asks about presidential job approval of approximately 175,000 Americans each year.

The value: Presidential job approval ratings provide an important indicator of an incumbent president's election chances. Since World War II, presidents who maintained approval ratings above 50% in the election year were easily re-elected. Presidents near or just below 50% tended to be in competitive re-election fights. Presidents with approval ratings well below 50% have generally been defeated for re-election.

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Voter Enthusiasm

The question: Compared to previous elections, are you more enthusiastic about voting than usual, or less enthusiastic?

The frequency: Gallup is currently tracking voter enthusiasm periodically.

The history: Gallup tracked voter enthusiasm on a periodic basis in previous elections and will continue to measure it on a periodic basis in 2012.

The value: Voting enthusiasm generally relates to the eventual election outcome in midterm and presidential election years. In election years in which one party has a clear advantage on enthusiasm, that party tends to fare better in the midterm elections or win the presidential election. Enthusiasm also provides insights into relative differences in turnout across partisan groups.

Positive Intensity Scores

The question: Gallup bases its Positive Intensity Scores on two questions asked of those who say they recognize the name of a political candidate.

Now, please tell me whether you have a generally favorable or unfavorable impression of __________? / Is that a strongly (favorable/unfavorable) opinion or just (a favorable/an unfavorable) opinion?

Gallup calculates the Positive Intensity Score as the percentage of those with a strongly favorable opinion of a candidate minus the percentage with strongly unfavorable opinions, among those familiar with the candidate.

The frequency: Gallup tracked Positive Intensity Scores for the GOP contenders and candidates weekly from Feb. 28 through Nov. 27, at which point Gallup's daily tracking of the GOP presidential race shifts to the Republican trial heat ballot. Gallup will periodically update Republicans' positive intensity toward the GOP contenders until there is a nominee and will measure national adults' positive intensity toward the Republican nominee and President Obama until Election Day.

The history: The Gallup Positive Intensity Score metric is new in 2011. Gallup bases the measure on its extensive work with calculating the effect of personalities on ratings in media settings. This research showed that while many viewers have mildly positive views of television personalities, those who generate strong reactions determine ratings.

The value: Gallup designed the Positive Intensity Score to measure the degree to which presidential candidates create strong emotions among voters, under the assumption that these candidates have a higher probability of motivating voters in the election. The metric also controls for name identification, which is particularly important early in an election when people know some candidates much better than others.

Economic Confidence

The question: Gallup bases its Economic Confidence Index on the combined responses to two questions:

How would you rate economic conditions in this country today - as excellent, good, only fair, or poor? Right now, do you think that economic conditions in this country, as a whole, are getting better or getting worse?

The frequency: Gallup tracks Americans' economic confidence daily and reports the results in three-day rolling averages. The Gallup Economic Confidence Index is an average of two components: ratings of current economic conditions and Americans' perceptions of whether the U.S. economy is getting better or getting worse. The Index can range from a maximum of +100 to a minimum of -100.

The history: Gallup began measuring economic confidence on a periodic basis in 1992, on a monthly basis in October 2000, and on a daily basis in January 2008.

The value: Consumer views of the economy are not always consistent with unemployment or inflation, and therefore need to be monitored separately to determine an incumbent president's exposure to economic discontent. Gallup's Economic Confidence Index closely mirrors trends in the Conference Board and Thomson-Reuters/Michigan consumer indexes, and provides near real-time measurement without long lags in reporting. According to Gallup trends, negative Economic Confidence readings late in a presidential campaign do not bode well for an incumbent's re-election.

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Most Important Problem

The question: What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?

The frequency: Gallup asks the most important problem question monthly. The question is "open-ended," meaning that respondents can provide any answer they want. Interviewers record the responses and then code them into broad categories.

The history: Gallup first asked the American public about the most important problem facing the nation in 1939, at which time the top problem was unemployment and jobs, with war and pending war a close second. Gallup asked the most important problem question on a periodic basis from 1939 through 2001, and on a monthly basis since.

The value: Americans' assessment of the most important problem facing the nation provides important insights into the issues that influence presidential campaigns and motivate voters.

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U.S. Satisfaction

The question: In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?

The frequency: Gallup asks this question on a monthly basis.

The history: Gallup first asked this U.S. satisfaction question using this format in 1979, and has asked it each month since 2001.

The value: U.S. satisfaction, similar to the "right track, wrong track" question other survey organizations use, provides a valuable summary measure of Americans' economic and political moods. Gallup trends suggest satisfaction does not need to be at 50% for an incumbent to be re-elected, but should be near 35% or higher for re-election.

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