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Matt Bai: Wrong on presidential approval

Topics: Barack Obama , presidential approval

In the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai suggests it is "an ominous sign, historically speaking, for a majority party" when "the president's own approval ratings fell below 50 percent":

[President Obama] continued to go out and shake his head disbelievingly at "the culture of Washington," which to the Democrats in the House sounded as if he were saying that his own party was the problem, as if somehow the Democratic majorities in Congress hadn't managed to navigate the bulk of his ambitious agenda past a blockade of Republican vessels, their ship shredded by cannon fire. And all this while the president's own approval ratings fell below 50 percent -- an ominous sign, historically speaking, for a majority party...

Just about every strategist of either party in Washington will tell you that the best indicator of whether the voters are growing less skeptical -- and, thus, of whether Democrats can survive the November elections intact -- can be found in the president's approval rating. There is a political theorem that illustrates this, supported by data from past elections and often repeated by Democrats now, and it goes like this: If the president's approval rating is over 50 percent in the fall, then his party will suffer only moderately. If his rating is under 50 percent, however, then the pounding at the polls is likely to be a memorable one.

I'm not sure why Bai thinks Obama's approval numbers are so ominous. Using USA Today's presidential approval tracker, I made this chart showing approval ratings to this point in each of the last seven presidencies:

Approval-comp2

Obama's approval trajectory (in purple) is tightly clustered with five of the last seven presidents. Only two of those seven -- George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush -- had significantly higher approval ratings at this point, and neither is an especially compelling counter-example: Bush 43's approval ratings were artificially inflated by 9/11, and Bush 41 was not re-elected. It's not clear that there's anything ominous about Obama's standing at this point.

If Bai is instead referring to the fortunes of the president's party in midterm elections under unified government, then there are only three relevant first-term examples in the contemporary era: Carter (1977-1978), Clinton (1993-1994), and Bush 43 (2001-June 2002). Of those, Democrats suffered moderate damage in 1978 with Carter around 50 percent; the Republicans won a landslide victory in 1994 with Clinton in the mid-40s; and Republicans picked up seats in 2002 when Bush's approval ratings were still extremely high.

Finally, if Bai is referring to midterm elections more generally, I'm not sure what makes 50 percent so magical. The president's approval ratings are an important factor, as this Nate Silver graph shows, but it's not clear that it matters whether Obama is slightly below 50 percent or not -- he's likely to lose seats either way (as most presidents do):

Silver

In reality, other factors such as slow jobs growth and the generic ballot are far more ominous for Democrats than Obama's approval rating.

[Note: The text of this post was revised.]

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com]

 

Comments
Ptolemy:

OK, perhaps 50% is not so ominous but as the chart shows, mid-forties and dropping seems a bit depressing...

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hoosier_gary:

Once again relying on a fairly meaningless junk chart from Nate Silver. You can't straight-line those figures - they are all over the chart.

What I do agree with is that the generic ballot is much more important than presidential approval. That will be especially true in a year where people are still reluctant to disapprove of Obama because they had such high hopes for him but are more than willing to take out their wrath on congress.

What would be an interesting chart is to see what the turnover rate in congress is based on the approval of congress. Approval is hovering at 20% or below right now. Obama hovering around 50% isn't going to help that.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"Approval is hovering at 20% or below right now."

I think congress approval is always in the 20s or 30s. It may have been over 50 for a short time in 1995, but ever since then it's 40 at the highest.

Congress is simply not an institution a lot of people can like. People blame it for everything.

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Aaron_in_TX:

I don't understand why Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy are on the labels but not included in the graph.

Not sure about LBJ, but I'm pretty sure Nixon and JFK had quite good approvals in their first two years.

But the point is well taken - Obama's approval is at the same level that 4 of our other presidents' were, so the hype about Obama's low approval is just that - hype.

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RAG2:

@ hoosier_gary:

What I do agree with is that the generic ballot is much more important than presidential approval. That will be especially true in a year where people are still reluctant to disapprove of Obama because they had such high hopes for him but are more than willing to take out their wrath on congress.

I suggest an alternate explanation. Bill Clinton's approval rating was lower at this point in his presidency, but his ratings then with white Americans was the same as Obama's now. And most people had similarly high hopes for Clinton.

The difference is that America is less white than it was in 1994. And non-white Americans overwhelming support Barack Obama, as they did Bill Clinton. For a Rep to defeat Obama, he'd/she'd need over 60% of the white vote.

Because of changing demographics--where populations groups inclined to support Dems are growing in number (and turning out, at least in prez elec) more than those supporting Reps--I predict that while there will probably be a rout this year, it won't be as dramatic as 1994. The Reps will probably gain 30-45 House seats--enough at most for a very narrow House majority--and 6-8 Senate seats--not enough for a Senate majority. And, once again because of demographic trends, Reps won't be able to hold onto Congress for anything like 12 years like before.

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