2/4: OK, Class, When’s an Approval Rating an Approval Rating?

By Barbara Carvalho

The quick answer is: when you ask about the approval rating of an elected official.  Unfortunately, that clarity was missing in a slew of recent polls on New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and the start of his term in office.


First, Siena College released the findings of a statewide poll which measured Cuomo’s approval rating at 44% but also reported his favorability rating at 70%.  Unfortunately, media coverage of their poll results often twisted the two scores.  Approval rating deals with job performance.  Favorability deals with likeability.  They are not synonymous.

Think back to President Reagan who was well-liked (favorability rating) but typically received lower marks for his job performance (approval rating).  For President Clinton, the opposite was the case.  Higher approval ratings on the job he was doing as president but lower favorability scores tapping into his personal conduct.  So far, President Obama’s favorability numbers have consistently been higher than his approval rating.

Let’s return to the topic at hand and New York’s governor.   Have you done your reading assignment?  Next up was the Quinnipiac University poll which opted out of an approval rating altogether (it was too soon, they claimed) and only asked about Cuomo’s favorability.  But even on Cuomo’s favorability, Quinnipiac found a very different result than Siena … 47% compared to 70%.

Why?  Do I always have to see the same hands?  Let’s turn the page to Lesson #2 in survey research.  Question wording matters.  You get what you ask for.  Quinnipiac asked: “Is your opinion of Governor Andrew Cuomo favorable, unfavorable, or haven’t you heard enough about him?”  Siena asked “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion about Andrew Cuomo?”   A subtle distinction perhaps, but one that makes for a difference in the poll numbers.   36% opted for the Quinnipiac choice “or haven’t you heard enough about him?”   This substantially “reduced” the number of respondents only going for the positive or negative options.  Quinnipiac also included in their calculations the 6% who refused to answer the question.  I’ll offer that as an extra credit assignment if you want to comment on whether that makes good survey sense (or not).

Then finally, there was the tie-breaker poll from Marist.  We found Cuomo’s approval rating at 48% and his favorability at 71%, similar to what Siena found.  The question wording was similar, too.

These polls matter because they all address the important question of whether Governor Cuomo is off to a good start.  He is.  Voters like him (71%).  A greater proportion of New Yorkers also give him a thumbs-up on his first weeks as governor than did for his most recent predecessors.  The answer isn’t lost on the political community, especially the state legislature.

Hope this helps to clear up the confusion.  If there are no other questions, class dismissed.