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Morning Jay: Obama the Underdog

6:00 AM, Apr 19, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Sean Trende has an important column that connects presidential job approval to reelection results. You really should read the whole thing, but here is the big take home point:

[I]ncumbent elections have historically looked more like referenda than choices, and so far, this election is looking like one as well. Voters who approve of the incumbent largely vote for him; those that do not approve of the incumbent vote for the challenger, except in extreme circumstances.  

This is exactly right, and something I have been discussing for some time now. It also points to why I think the conventional wisdom of President Obama being a heavy favorite for reelection is massively oversold.

In fact, I’d argue that he is an underdog. For a simple reason: A majority of Americans do not think Obama is doing a good job, and they have thought that for a very long time.

Now, let’s be clear. It is not an overwhelming majority of Americans, not by any stretch. We are not in Nixon ’74, Carter ’79, or Bush ’08 territory with Obama. However, we have seen a durable 50-55 percent of Americans either disapprove or at least not approve of his job performance for quite a while.

To appreciate this, consider the following picture, which tracks Obama’s job approval in the RealClearPolitics average, from the beginning of his term through the end of 2009.

The president entered office with enormous public support, which he retained even after the relatively controversial stimulus bill. It was only when the health care debate started to heat up – between Memorial Day and Labor Day – that his numbers fell. And boy did they fall. On June 1, 2009 his net approval was a solid +28.2, but by September 1 it was at +7.8.

The most noteworthy decline in 2009 occurred among independents. We can appreciate that when we take a look at the Gallup poll numbers from 2009. Gallup helpfully breaks down its approval data by party identification, and the numbers are illuminating.

Obama started losing GOP support with the stimulus, but independent voters held with him through about the 20th week of his first year. They started breaking against him around Memorial Day, and by the end of his first year in office his job approval with independents had dropped a solid 15 points.

You’ll note that Democrats by and large stayed with the president in 2009, and they have continued to do so. As the core Democratic voting coalition is roughly 45 percent (not since 1984 has the party carried less than that in the two-party vote for any national election, House, or presidency), Obama’s job approval has not dropped out of the mid-40s for very long.

But he has never won independents back, at least not for a sustained period of time. That is why, over the last two years, his job approval has mostly been stuck in a very narrow range in the mid-40s, as the following chart from RealClearPolitics of his job approval from 2010-present makes clear.

There have been ups (e.g., the killing of Osama bin Laden) and downs (e.g., the debt ceiling debate), but by and large Obama’s numbers have been pretty consistent, between 46 and 48 percent (this morning's reading is a very typical 47.3 percent). And that consistency is driven primarily by weak numbers among independent voters. The Gallup poll consistently shows him pulling in about 42 percent support from this bloc, well short of what is needed to get him above 50 percent overall.

(Incidentally, this helps explain most of the variation in net job approval between polls. For instance, the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has a large Democratic oversample (D+11), so his job approval is positive and fairly healthy looking at 50-45. Ditto the CBS News/New York Times poll that came out last night (D+8) at 48-42. On the other hand, Gallup, Rasmussen, Fox, and a few others consistently show a tighter spread between the two parties, thus making his job approval look worse. For what it is worth, actual election results over the last 10 years tend to reflect the latter batch of polls in terms of party ID, and no election in 20 years has had as outsized a Democratic advantage as what the ABC News/Washington Post or CBS News/New York Times polls regularly “find.”)

This is why I think the 2012 conventional wisdom is oversold. If Trende is right (and I believe he is), then Obama is going to have to get his job approval above 50 percent with the electorate, something he has not managed to do on a sustained basis in over two years.

I think this president's problem is that he misread his mandate and the public mood in 2009, which led to a historic miscalculation on his part through the summer and fall of that year when he pushed the health care bill. He compounded the error in winter 2010, forcing the bill through after Scott Brown's victory. By that point, he just seemed to lose credibility with the vital center of the American public; he hasn't gotten it back, and frankly I do not think he has made any concrete steps in the last two years to persuade the broad middle of the country to rejoin his cause.

Obviously, he could still do it. He has plenty of time, but why should we be expecting that to happen? It is not like the experts are predicting the economy is going to take off between now and Election Day. Instead, we are going to get more of the same muddled growth at roughly 2-2.5 percent, far less than what is needed to reduce the deficit or create jobs. So that means it is really up to Obama to sync up with the public mood. He has not done that, and frankly I am not sure he and his people recognize the need to do that, let alone how to do it. His latest brand of class warfare shtick has not won an election since 1948 -- and in fact the last three Democrats to win the presidency  (Carter, Clinton, and Obama) all played directly against that common caricature of the Democratic party.

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