The Question that Sends Campaigns and Pundits onto the Wrong Track

by Larry Rosin, President

Throughout this long, seemingly endless Presidential campaign season, there has been consistent focus on the “Right Direction/Wrong Track” numbers. A Google search of those two phrases combined brings nearly ten thousand hits, most of which are about politics. Senator Kerry, seizing upon what journalists refer to as “negative wrong track numbers” went through a period where he decided “wrong” was the functional word of his campaign, when describing the current administration.

One could teach an entire semester graduate course on the implications of each wording decision in this question formulation.

During the period when Kerry’s poll numbers in trial heats were sagging, pundits commented that the results were in defiance of the “wrong track” numbers, as if one simply had to support Kerry if one felt the country was on the wrong track. That led to the counter-punditry: “Kerry is doing poorly because he is depending on the wrong track figures” (see, for instance, Jonathan Alter’s Newsweek column of September 27th.)

Perhaps the obsession with being on the right track is misplaced. There are multiple problems with both the “Right Direction/Wrong Track” numbers and the analysis we hear about them.

First, of course, is the question itself. One major news organization asks the following:

“Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?”

One could teach an entire semester graduate course on the implications of each wording decision in this question formulation. Why ‘generally’ for the right direction but ‘pretty seriously’ for wrong? Why does one go in the ‘right direction’ but on the ‘wrong track’? (Other polling organizations do use a simpler ‘right direction/wrong direction’ wording).

But even still, the bigger issue with this question comes in the analysis of the results.

As stated, pundits consistently comment that a country with a population that feels things are “on the wrong track” can’t possibly reelect an incumbent. This may end up in the end being true, but it won’t be because everyone who feels things are on the wrong track will vote for Kerry.

A closer look at the current national polls shows that many of those who feel the country is going the wrong way are nonetheless ardent Bush supporters. For example, a recent CBS News poll had a majority saying wrong track (51%), but within the group saying wrong track, 14% say they plan to vote for President Bush and 15% say they approve of his job performance!

Quite plainly, the “wrong track” constituency is made up of two divergent groups, the larger group that disagrees with the President’s policy, mixed with a smaller group that apparently thinks the country is on the wrong track but the President is trying to correct that course. Thus, right in the data is the answer to the pundit’s confusion on the trial heat vs. the “negative wrong track.”

CNN and Gallup recently asked an interesting question: “Do you think the policies being proposed by each of the following presidential candidates would move the country in the right direction or in the wrong direction?” Kind of projecting the Right Direction/Wrong Track into the future. For whatever that is worth, when last they asked the question (pre-debates) there was much more “Right Direction” support for Bush than Kerry. This was in a survey where Bush showed a distinct advantage in the trial heat. Perhaps that is the functional question, instead of an evaluation of how one about feels the country’s current path.