Ask Dr. Popkin: The Romney Whopper Watch

In contrast to Paul Ryan's convention speech, Mitt Romney's dignified address last night mainly stayed within the bounds of "normal" political argument and tendentiousness. For instance, there's just no evidence that the Obama Administration has traveled the world "apologizing for America," and it's preposterous to claim that Obama has "thrown Israel under the bus." But these are all ways of the Republicans saying that they don't like the current president's approach and bearing. Romney made his case -- about himself, about his priorities, against the Administration -- and now Obama will have his turn.

But here's an exception: a hard-factual error in Romney's speech. As part of his indictment of the Administration's economic failures, Romney said that in past eras,

none doubted that here in America they could build a better life, that in America their children would be more blessed than they.

But today, four years from the excitement of the last election, for the first time, the majority of Americans now doubt that our children will have a better future.

As it turns out, the part that's highlighted is wrong. Or so says the person who played a big part in designing the "future better than the past?" question for political pollsters nearly 30 years ago, our own Samuel "Dr." Popkin of UCSD.

In a note he prepared today, and that Doyle McManus has mentioned for the LA Times, Popkin says that the truth is just the opposite of what Romney claimed:

The only time since 1984 when there was widespread optimism about the future in the polls was in the last year of William Jefferson Clinton, and never under Presidents, Reagan, or either Bush.

Popkin's full note is below, complete with the polling tables over the years on this issue. I trust and assume that in future presentations of their "Obama has disappointed us" case, the Romney team will leave out this data point.

Dr. Popkin writes:

In American journalism, a strategist reminded me in 2000, six months is history and four years is archaeology.

When Mitt Romney said this was the first time a majority of Americans were pessimistic about the future, I was startled. I devised an important measure to address this topic in 1984 as a consultant working with Warren Mitofsky at CBS. With minor variations - a wording change in 1989, CBS, in partnership with the New York Times asked people about their expectations for the next generation. I even published a short research note based on the early surveys in 1988 in Public Opinion, edited by Karlyn Keene and published by the American Enterprise Institute, an institution certainly known to Mr. Romney's staff.

Table One [below] was prepared between 1990 and 1993 when the economic fear was about a Japanese takeover of the American economy and the end of the American dream. I updated the table over the next few years as the fear of Japan morphed into a fear of China when Japan faltered. After last night's claim, I did a little archaeological digging of my own to check the claim that only now under President Obama has the country ever been pessimistic about the future.

This might have been a minor whopper in the scheme of convention whoppers but I take this one personally. The only time since 1984 when there was widespread optimism about the future in the polls was in the last year of William Jefferson Clinton, and never under Presidents, Reagan, or either Bush.

Through the last years of the Reagan presidency, all seven CBS/New York Times polls had more persons who thought the next generation would be bogged down than who thought they would have a good future. In October 1988, as he was doing his farewell tour around the country, 57 percent of respondents thought the next generation would be "bogged down by too many problems left behind for them" while 34 percent thought the next generation would "have a good future."

Under President G H W Bush, there was only one out seven polls when a plurality of Americans were optimistic. In the days immediately after Operation Desert Storm, thirty-six percent of respondents thought the future for the next generation would be better and 26 percent thought it would be worse.

When Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993 pessimists outnumbered optimists 49 percent to 22 percent and it dropped even further in March 1995 to 58% pessimistic and 16 percent optimistic. By the end of his second term, however, the public was far more optimistic than
under any previous or future president. As his last year in office began, 44 percent of the public expected a better life for the next generation and 27 percent were pessimistic.
President George W Bush never had a positive plurality in one of the four polls that asked this question during his two terms.

Under President Obama there was a bare plurality who were optimistic in March 2009, 35 percent to 32 percent pessimistic. The last poll, in April, that asked showed 47 percent pessimistic and 24 percent optimistic. That is better than during the entire Reagan second term, and in the same range as the last years of both Bush presidencies.

This question does not predict votes for or against incumbents. It does, however, relate to which economic problems people are most concerned about and their willingness to invest in the future.

Here's Table One -- click on the image for a larger version. Thanks to Samuel Popkin.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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