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Taking a Tumble Again

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

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JAY COST
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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.

But that theory may be coming undone. It is possible that the forces moving Democratic voters away from Obama are also pushing swing voters toward the GOP, to stymie a president they can no longer abide. If recent news is inducing Democrats to say, “That’s it, I oppose this president!” it may also be compelling swing voters to say, “That’s it, he has to be stopped!” 

When this happens, the Beltway political class talks about “nationalizing” an election. Something like nationalization probably occurred in 1980, when the Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, was very unpopular and the GOP won a Senate majority for the first time in 28 years. Nationalization helps explain several upsets over the last few cycles—Ron Johnson’s defeat of Russ Feingold in Wisconsin in 2010 would not have happened absent nationalization, for instance, nor would Jim Webb’s defeat of George Allen in Virginia in 2006.

Unfortunately, horse-race polling cannot yet give us a clear sense of what lies ahead. The portion of the electorate that swings midterm elections is small, and at this point in the cycle their thoughts on November’s Senate contests are not well formed. The GOP is leading in seven Democratic-held seats and well within striking distance in another four. But that is about all we can say. Polling cannot yet tell us whether swing voters will punish Democratic candidates for the failings of their party leader.

Republicans, though, would do well to encourage voters to do precisely that. The crush of events has shown the president to be desperately out of his depth. Both incompetent and factious, he lacks the mettle and the inclination to manage the affairs of state in the public interest. His allies should not be allowed to control any branch of government. He should be isolated to minimize the damage he can do in his last two years in office. If the people want Obama stopped, the only means is the GOP. Anything else is, for all intents and purposes, a vote for Obama.

This attack will not play in California or New York, but it may help move the needle in those seven Republican states with Senate races, not to mention in Colorado and Iowa, and maybe Michigan, New Hampshire, and Virginia.

Even a GOP Senate majority will not stop Obama, of course. The powers of the presidency have grown far beyond the original grant in the Constitution, quite often because Congress wrote vague or open-ended laws that presidents and their bureaucrats have been free to interpret. Still, a Republican Congress would be a start.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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