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Morning Jay: What to Make of Obama's Approval Bounce?

6:00 AM, Jan 18, 2012 • By JAY COST
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You might have noticed recently that Barack Obama’s job approval has ticked up slightly in the last few weeks. What to make of this?

Here is the RealClearPolitics average:

Two months ago, the president’s job approval was 43.7 percent. Today, it is 46.0 percent, an uptick of 2.3 points. We see this more or less in specific polls as well.

As we can see, most polls show him ticking up, while some show either no change or negative change, for an average uptick of 1.6 points. That is right in line with the change the RCP average is showing.

How does this break down among partisan identifiers? That is the more important question in terms of the upcoming election. Fortunately, a number of polls now offer party identification breakdowns, showing how the president fares among Democrats, independents, and Republicans. Here is the average of those polls:

Clearly, most of Obama’s improvement in the last two months has been with Democrats. This makes sense, as the president has been campaigning from the left lately: battling congressional Republicans, ending the war in Iraq, fighting over controversial recess appointments, stressing tried-and-true Democratic themes in his stump speeches. All of this seems to have pushed marginal Democrats back into his camp, at the expense of some marginal Republicans as well.

For some reason – one that I do not understand – the media focus on quantitative data always seems to be on what’s known as the “first derivative.” It is all about the trend-line: is it up, down, or what? I see this most notably in economic news reports, and it can be awfully misleading. For instance, juxtapose this story on the Empire State Manufacturing Index (which showed a “surprise” improvement this month) against the long-term trend on industrial capacity utilization: looking at the month-to-month change, you can very easily forget that we are actually in year 15 of a double-dip industrial recession.

And so it goes with political numbers as well. Sure, Obama’s numbers have improved, but they are still well within the danger zone, and they have not come close to breaking through.

To appreciate this, consider the following. It tracks Democratic performance among Democrats, independents, and Republicans in bad elections over the last 30 years (1980, 1984, 1988, 1994, 2010) against where Obama currently is now with those same groups.

As we can see, Ronald Reagan blew Jimmy Carter out of the water in 1980 (then Walter Mondale in 1984) because he won substantial support among Democrats. However, the party more or less consolidated its base vote starting with Michael Dukakis in 1988, and this is pretty much all Obama has managed to do in the last two months. His relentless, partisan campaign of this winter has only moved him into Dukakis territory.

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