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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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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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