The Magazine

Taking a Tumble Again

What Obama’s descending job approval ratings mean for November.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

President Barack Obama’s job approval seems to be slipping again. After a brutal couple of months following the failed launch of HealthCare.gov, the Real Clear Politics average of opinion polls found his approval at 40 percent in December. But the government claimed to have fixed HealthCare.gov, never mind the continuing problems, and the “surge” in enrollments gave him a further boost. By mid-April, he was back up to nearly 45 percent approval in the RCP average. Recently, though, his numbers have tumbled again, and today his job approval is just 42 percent.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

The likely driver of this decline is the onslaught of bad news: the crisis in Ukraine, the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange, the flood of illegal crossings of the Texas border, and most recently the deteriorating situation in Iraq; the capture of Abu Khattala, a suspect in the Benghazi attacks, is a rare bright spot whose effect on the polls, if any, remains to be determined. So far, the cumulative effect of week after week of bad headlines for the administration has been rising disapproval of the president across a host of metrics. Recent polling by Bloomberg and ABC News/Washington Post has shown the president taking a slide not just in his overall job approval, but in his handling of the economy, international affairs, health care, the deficit, and immigration.

A 42 percent approval rating is terrible for any president; Obama’s is drawing comparisons to the support George W. Bush registered at a similar point in his tenure. This must scare the wits out of professional Democrats, who remember well that Bush’s political misery was their joy.

Still, it is fair to ask: Will this slide, if it persists, affect the midterm elections in November? Probably not directly. The Democratic party has not fallen below 45 percent of the two-party vote in nationwide House contests since 1928. In several instances—1972 and 1984, for example—Democrats have garnered less than 45 percent in presidential elections, but those are less reliable measures of the core Democratic electorate because personalities often loom so large. 

House results are a better measure of core party support. It is possible—perhaps likely—this year that the GOP will score its largest House victory since before the Great Depression. Republicans are on track to win as many seats as they did in 2010, and because they are the incumbent party, their margins of victory are likely to be greater than they were four years ago. 

Even so, if the Democrats fall below 45 percent, they probably will not fall as far as Obama’s recent job approval. The core Democratic electorate should come out to support the party, even if some Democrats now disapprove of Obama. 

We have seen this dynamic before. George W. Bush’s job approval stood at just 39 percent in the Real Clear Politics average at the time of the 2006 midterms, yet House Republicans won about 46 percent of the two-party House vote. In 2008, Bush’s job approval was an abysmal 28 percent according to Real Clear Politics, but congressional Republicans still won 44 percent of the two-party House vote.

The reason is that partisan voting habits are much harder to change than perceptions of the president. Thus, a slide in presidential approval from 50 percent to 45 percent has much more electoral relevance than a fall below 45 percent. The former indicates the loss of the all-critical bloc of independents; the latter suggests your partisans are dropping away, but they will probably come back in November. The latest Gallup poll placed Obama’s job approval at 64 percent among nonwhites, 70 percent among liberals, and 78 percent among Democrats. These are dangerous numbers for a Democratic president, no doubt; still, Democrats will likely do better with these base groups on Election Day.

That said, there may be an indirect link between Obama’s slide and his party’s electoral fortunes. 

Republicans need to gain six seats to take control of the Senate, and seven of their targets are in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. In 2013, Obama averaged just 34 percent in the Gallup poll in these states, and his standing is probably no better today. Congressional Democrats have been pinning their hopes on the idea that a critical mass of voters will not be put off by their dislike of Obama, so that Democratic candidates can run on personal traits or local issues and win.

Recent Blog Posts