Election 2012: 44’s Tipping Point
The distinction between personal popularity and job approval is central to understanding the nuances of polling. Samples too, are important when taking, and therefore understanding, these polls. Is it Adults? Likely voters? Registered voters? If it’s RV, what is the demographic mix? Women, college graduates, 24-30 age group, black, Hispanic, seniors? Etc, etc, etc.
Gallup’s final poll before the 2004 election showed Kerry was ahead among registered voters by 2 points, while Bush was ahead among likely voters by 2 points. The final election result? Bill Clinton had high personal unfavorables but high marks for job approval. He was re-elected (thanks Ross Perot) because people approved of his job performance even though they had a very low opinion of Clinton as a person. Obama appears to be the polar opposite of Clinton.
On its face, the idea that an incumbent officeholder can be reelected when more Americans disapprove of his or her job performance than approve seems unthinkable. But, personal popularity and job approval is not the same thing. Obama’s job approval is hovering around a miserable 38% in the latest Gallup Poll. But Democrats will point to the fact that his personal favorable ratings are still above 50%.
In a well-written piece by Reid Wilson of the National Journal Wilson points out, there is a partial correlation, pollsters say, between a politician’s job-approval ratings and favorability ratings. Favorability ratings generally represent a ceiling, above which job-approval ratings do not rise. And poor job-approval ratings, over the long term, can prove a drag on an incumbent’s favorability ratings.
A short-term drop in approval ratings doesn’t portend a corresponding drop in personal favorability – and a high personal-favorability rating can bolster a lousy job-approval rating – but when favorable numbers begin to descend, it’s an ominous sign for anyone planning to run for another term.
In a related vein, Larry Sabato shrugs off Obama’s sagging approval numbers citing that three predecessors — Truman, Reagan, and Clinton — were reelected after having suffered polling in the 30’s in their first term. Three others were not reelected — Ford, Carter, and Bush 41. Reagan and Clinton may have hit the 30s, but their numbers rebounded because the economy improved.
Meanwhile, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels will tell you that a candidate’s personal favorability only matters at the margins. He notes a candidates’ image (traits) as having only a modest impact on election outcomes. He cites Bush-Gore as an example. Conversely, NY Post’s John Podhoretz notes that unless something extraordinarily dramatic comes along for Obama, the incumbent President is doomed, citing, conclusions that are inescapable from the history of US presidential politics since 1945.
Like all fads: bell-bottoms, leg warmers, a pet rock, the shine eventually wears off. But, polling consistently shows that the majority of Americans view Obama favorably, even while they increasingly disagree with his job performance. But as many know, ‘likeability’ isn’t a trait that people look for in a person when they are having a difficult time providing for their family. We need roughly 500,000 jobs a month for 10 years to get back to unemployment levels that we enjoyed during most of the Bush years.
Americans too began to view Bush as personally unfavorable at about the same time. A July 2005 Pew survey showed 51% of Americans had a favorable impression of Bush. By late October, that number had sunk to 46%, then stayed in the high 30’s for most of the rest of his term. Bush’s job-approval rating led the way down, and once the favorable ratings followed; there was no way to recover politically.
To note, personal favorability is one of the big reasons why Bush won in 2000 over Gore. For that matter, it’s why JFK beat Nixon in 1960. Some observers have opined who could possibly like a pencil-neck serial liar, who blames everyone else; a beleaguered Democratic first-term, incompetent president, overseeing a deteriorating economy, with scarce energy and soaring gasoline prices, and a stubborn willingness to maintain a big spending, redistribution, milk the rich, over-regulated destructive course.
Obama is NOT likeable. He’s a cold, distant fish. Perhaps, some people don’t want to admit they don’t like him, not even to themselves, for fear of being viewed as racist. But, Presidential approval can change substantially over the course of a year and we have more than a year between now and Election Day. Polls showed Reagan and Carter tied the 72-hours prior to Election Day. Indy’s or “Reagan Democrats’ surged him past the finish line in the final days.
Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research dissected both the relationship between approval ratings and electoral success and the relationship between personal favorables and electoral success. Three things stand out from their analysis:
1. While President Obama’s is in deep trouble now, it is too early to make a prediction about his standing next November.
2. For most Presidents, job approval and personal favorables are similar and a poorly regarded President loses, while a well-regarded President wins.
3. While Democrats like to paint the picture that Obama can repeat Truman’s miraculous win of 1948, his ratings of the moment have more in common with Gerald Ford in 1946 — a personally well-regarded President, whose administration voters judged a failure, and who lost his bid for re-election.
After ’94 Clinton pivoted and reluctantly worked with the Republican Congress. Obama has taken the historic defeat he suffered in November 2010 and insists the public wants him to double down on his socialist policies. The establishment media, who has invested heavily in Obama, soon will begin selling the idea that Obama’s personal approval ratings are favorable. I have already noticed shifts to ‘Adult’ samples instead of ‘Likely or Registered’ voters. This seems to skew the numbers toward Obama.
Polls shape public opinion rather that reflect it. None of these polls are accurate. They are excluding key voter groups; corpses, household pets, cartoon characters, illegal aliens, felons, institutionalized patients, union goons and pseudonyms – all still firmly behind Obama and the Democrats. Oh. I forgot. Hollywood actors and actresses too.
Is Obama in deep trouble facing an electorate where fewer than two-in-five voters think he’s doing a good job? None of this matters. Thanks for reading. Fifteen  more months of bad economic news, foreign crises, and 8% to 9% unemployment and we’ll see a repeat of 1980. Carter lost 43 states and this guy makes Carter look like Calvin Coolidge. Regardless of what Obama’s personal favorability rating is come Nov 2012 – it’s the economy and jobs stupid.
Lowest Gallup approval rating by presidents since Truman: