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Morning Jay: Memo to the Media: Obama Is Not Popular!

6:00 AM, Apr 22, 2011 • By JAY COST
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On Tuesday, MSNBC’s First Read posed this question:

Did last week’s speech backfire? A new Washington Post/ABC poll…seems to confirm that the president’s speech last week might not have played well. For one thing, and this is true going back to the ’08 campaign, Obama usually doesn’t get rewarded when he comes off as too partisan (even though the left loves it). More importantly, last week’s speech was on a topic -- the deficit/debt -- that most Americans don’t find as important as the economy/jobs. And in the Post/ABC poll, Obama took a hit with independents, with 55% of them disapproving of his job. 

This is a great example of the myopia of the mainstream media. First, presidential speeches like this almost never move public opinion

The second reason will come as surprise to many journalists and pundits in the mainstream media. I hope they’re sitting down for this one:

President Obama is not popular. He has not been popular for a very long time. Why should a single speech be expected to move a needle that hasn’t budged in a year?

As they say in the sports world, let’s go to the videotape!

Let’s make use of a very simple definition of “popular.” A president is popular if and only if he is pulling in more than 50 percent of public support. By that definition, and using the RealClearPolitics average, we can say that President Obama has been “popular” for just ten days in the last year.

And even this might be a little too charitable to the 44th president, at least when viewed in the context of the electorate. Most of the media's polls have heavily Democratic samples. That’s justified because they poll adults, which is fine in itself, but when you’re trying to understand sentiment among the people who will vote in 20 months, relying on polls like ABC/Washington Post gives the world a decidedly blue tint. The following chart makes that clear by looking at the partisan ratio (D:R) of the most recent MSM polls that provided that data, in comparison to exit polling going back for the last 14 years.

Typically, the two pollsters who regularly come closest to the real electorate in terms of party ID spread are Rasmussen Reports and Gallup. It’s the latter poll I’m going to focus on now, as Gallup provides a lot of data for public consumption. It is a bouncy poll, for sure, but the last time President Obama was steadily above 50 percent approval (measured on a quarterly basis) in Gallup was the fall of 2009. And among the political group that swings American elections – independents – he has not been popular since that summer:

Those look to me to be some pretty stable numbers. He started out with 61 percent approval from independents, but for more than a year now he's been stuck between 40 and 45 percent, meaning that 15 percent or so of independents who were once in his camp now seem to be just plain gone. That makes me wonder: are those critical swing voters in the very middle -- the ones who voted Clinton-Bush-Obama -- even listening to him any more, or have they tuned him out?

Last week I wrote two columns, the first arguing that Obama is “just plain bad at politics,” and the second asserting that his speech was meant to stabilize his position with the left. The two link up here: the speech might have been a good tactical move in pursuit of holding his Democratic base, but focusing on the base is a terrible strategy, considering his standing with the center of the electorate. Put simply, Obama has a very real problem with independent voters. He has had that problem for a long time – almost 24 months, in fact – and yet he and his team have done very little about it. One would have thought that the nineteen-point margin that independents handed the GOP in the 2010 House election would have alerted the White House to the trouble, as well as the fact that this swing helped give the Republicans the single largest House pickup in generations. But apparently not. 

Three previous presidents were in this kind of polling jam at this point in their administrations: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Reagan and Clinton both tracked back to the political center after their midterm drubbings, and Reagan had the benefit of a V-shaped recovery that was just starting at this point in his tenure. Carter, on the other hand, drifted sideways, as did the economy, which fell into recession by 1980. Who does Obama look like right today? I’d say Carter. Economic growth is slowing down, inflation is on the rise, the deficit is out of control, swing voters have gone away, and the guy in the Oval Office doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea what to do about any of it.

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