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Polls Apart

Why imperiled congressional Democrats can take no solace from Obama’s approval ratings.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Every few days there appears a poll showing President Obama’s job approval rating skulking to a new low. Last week, for instance, a Gallup tracking poll put him at 46 percent approve, with 48 percent disapprove. To congressional Democrats facing reelection this fall the numbers look bad. But if you peer closely, the news is worse. 

Polls Apart

When he took office, Obama’s approval rating stood around 65 percent. His disapproval rating was in the low 20s, leaving him with a net positive of more than +40. Obama had sailed into office on the wave of an historic election, replacing a deeply unpopular president. No one expected this illuminated period to last. But no one expected it to end so quickly, either. As the summer of 2009 began, his approval dropped to the high 50s. By the end of the summer it was in the low 50s, where it stabilized before trending downward during the winter. New tracking polls from Rasmussen, Gallup, Pew, and other research outfits appear several times a week. Obama has polled over 50 percent only eight times in 2010.

What gets lost in the analysis of these numbers is that the job approval rate is held aloft by President Obama’s remarkable popularity among blacks. His appeal to blacks is an interesting phenomenon. 

When the president took office in January 2009, Gallup measured his overall job approval at 67 percent, with 86 percent of blacks approving. Since then, blacks have shown an increasingly favorable opinion of him. In June, for instance, as Gallup showed Obama’s approval slipping with most groups, it shot up to 95 percent among blacks. In recent weeks, it has stabilized in the low 90s. (Gallup has never clocked this number below 86 percent.) By Gallup’s measure, Obama has lost ground with every other cohort since taking office, including self-identified liberals, self-identified Democrats, and even self-identified liberal Democrats. Blacks are the only group in which he has gained ground.

Other pollsters have found the same trend. Rasmussen gives respondents four choices when it comes to presidential job approval: strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, and strongly disapprove. In February 2009, 80 percent of blacks strongly approved of Obama’s job performance and 8 percent somewhat approved. By August, his strong approval was down to 71 percent, but his somewhat approval was up to 23 percent—kicking his overall approval among blacks up 5 points, to 93 percent. In Rasmussen’s tracking poll last week, Obama’s approval among blacks had ticked upward again: 76 percent strongly approved and 20 percent somewhat approved, for a 96 percent total approval rate. 

By the numbers, black voters are Obama’s core base of support. They support him more solidly than any other demographic group—more than young voters, more than postgraduate degree holders. Of course, every politician has a core constituency. What’s extraordinary about President Obama’s is not just the uniformity of support within his core constituency, but the difference in both degree and trajectory between this base and the rest of the electorate.

Consider, for instance, George W. Bush’s base: white evangelical Protestants. In January 2002, President Bush’s overall job approval rating was a remarkable 83 percent. (This number was still inflated by post-9/11 solidarity.) His approval rating among white evangelical Protestants was higher still—95 percent. But over time, as the public soured on Bush, this base also soured, if to a lesser degree. By the time he left office Bush’s overall job approval rating was 33 percent. His rating among white evangelical Protestants was much higher—16 points higher—but its trajectory had still followed the contours of the general population’s shift. 

So far, this is not the case with President Obama’s support from blacks. Obama’s black job approval numbers are more than double his overall numbers. What that means is that the level of support the president receives from this group moves the overall number more than you might imagine. When you do the math, accounting for percentages of population (roughly: 75 percent white,
12 percent black, and 13 percent Hispanic/other), you find that today the black vote moves the overall number significantly. Using Gallup’s data, blacks push Obama’s overall number up by about 5 points; using Rasmussen’s by roughly 7 points.

Now all core supporters move the overall number of their candidate upwards; that’s why they’re called a base. In a presidential election, this trend has few ramifications. The presidency is a nationally elected office, and nationwide approval indices are a good measurement of the prospect of reelection. But this skewing of the president’s job approval number creates complications for congressional candidates. While about 12 percent of Americans are black, relatively few congressional districts have an average demographic make up. Because of gerrymandering, mandated majority-minority districting, and simple geographic diversity, blacks tend to be concentrated in certain congressional districts. There are 31 districts with a black population over
40 percent. Only 132 districts are above the national average in terms of black population—leaving 303 districts below the national average.

This racial concentration creates a great many districts which are significantly less black than the nation as a whole. For instance, 62 districts are less than 2 percent black; 107 districts are less than 3 percent black; 177 districts are less than 5 percent black. The median congressional district has a black population of only 6.41 percent. 

This uneven dispersal magnifies the disparity of approval between Obama’s base and the rest of the country. If relatively few congressional districts look like America, then in most congressional districts Obama’s job approval is likely to be lower—anywhere from 2 to 7 points lower—than the national average. (Conversely, in a smaller number of districts it is likely to be much, much higher.)

If you’re looking for data that suggest a larger wave in November than you might otherwise expect, here it is. Obama’s national job approval numbers are low, but not yet seen as catastrophic. Yet in a great many districts—and particularly swing districts—they may actually be closer to President Bush’s 2006 number than otherwise appears. Bush still had 40 percent approval in November 2006. 

It’s not hard to see why this phenomenon might concern the folks running Democratic campaigns. Charlie Cook has 23 Democratic-held seats currently rated as toss-ups, and this sample looks a lot like Congress as a whole. Only six of the 23 have black populations above the national average and in five of these districts, as you might expect, the black population is over 20 percent. But of the 23 districts, the median black population is only 5.67 percent. Eleven of these seats have a black population under 5 percent. In seven of them the black population is under 2 percent.

Many caveats apply, obviously: Events are unpredictable, and job approval isn’t votes. Even so, in districts with a below-average number of blacks, President Obama’s job approval could already resemble 2006-vintage Bush. Not a comforting thought for Democrats with jobs on the line this fall.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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