“Americans have different and sometimes conflicting priorities on the economy and clashing expectations about what’s ahead,” the newspaper’s Susan Page wrote. “The uneven impact of the Great Recession and the uncertainty of the recovery have shaped those divergent views and with them the campaign appeals of President Obama and likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney. A USA Today analysis sorts Americans into five categories of people with similar perspectives about what’s wrong and who can fix it, using findings from a nationwide USA Today/Gallup Poll taken this month.”
The problem is the generalizations reveal little, precisely because they try to show so much.
Here’s an example:
“John Schuck, 39, a corrections officer from Buffalo, falls into the most conservative and reliably Republican group,” Ms. Page wrote. “We’ve dubbed them the Downbeats, a name based on the group’s defining characteristic — in this case, its gloomy view of the nation’s situation. Schuck rates the economy as poor and fears it’s about to get worse, and he sees the constellation of economic problems as too connected to choose one as most important.”
Did we learn anything in that paragraph about John Schuck, a corrections officer from Buffalo? Not really.
We learned far more about USA Today.
“Obama is fair,” USA Today quotes Carolyne Silver, 58, of Rocky Mount, N.C.
“She is one of the 99 Percenters, the most liberal and Democratic of the groups, named for the rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street whose goals they embrace,” Ms. Page wrote. “The president tries ‘to spread things’ around to benefit everyone, she says, ‘but the way Romney speaks, he wants the rich to stay rich and the poor to stay poor.’ Two-thirds of the 99 Percenters predict the economy will improve over the next four years only if Obama wins.”
What’s important here is that Ms. Silver clearly has a negative view of Romney, but it’s a superficial one that won’t hold up to much. Like most of us, she’s in favor of “fairness,” but it would get more complicated if she (or we) were asked to define that.
USA Today’s goal is clearly to “put a face” on a complex issue — or in this case, a set of complex issues, culminating in the presidential election. That’s not an uncommon practice. Lots of newspapers attempt it when trying to tell complicated stories.
John Schuck, for example, is reduced to a gloomy gus who is expected to vote for Romney. He could very well have a disabled child, however, who relies on his health insurance. Surely that might change his vote, if not his mood.
And it would probably take little to sway Ms. Silver away from Obama — say, someone wanting to “fairly” share her retirement account.
And in both cases, the most crucial aspect of a political poll wasn’t addressed — just how likely are any of these examples likely to vote?
USA Today may be trying to illustrate the election, but it’s obviously trying too hard.