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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.

My gut tells me that, barring some unpredictable event that moves the needle further toward the Republicans this year, Obama will collect the Democratic vote that the party has managed in the last 20 years – about 85 to 90 percent of party identifiers plus 35 to 40 percent of independent voters. The Democratic narrative about the last two years basically is that Obama saved the economy from another depression, and he could have done more were it not for those extremist Tea Partiers. I don’t buy this for a minute, but I think most Democrats do. This narrative (plus a heaping serving of class warfare demoagoguery against Romney, should he win the nomination) will keep them on board the Obama reelection campaign.

So, this consolidation of the base Democratic vote over the last few months does not strike me as actual movement toward the goal of reelection, as it was probably going to happen anyway and losers in the last 20 years have managed the same feat as well. By itself, it is only getting him something around 45 percent of the two-party vote.

To win reelection, Obama must improve substantially with independent voters, a much different task than holding the party base. As we saw above, his current 40.6 percent approval with independents is not much different than what losing Democratic efforts have pulled over the last 20 years. And this anemic showing with independents has basically been the long-term trend:

The Rasmussen Reports poll does not have much better news for Obama on the independent voter front. It finds that just 36 percent of independents rate Obama’s handling of the economy as “excellent” or “good,” 27 percent rate him as “excellent” or “good” on energy (and remember, if gas prices again rise to $4 this summer, energy will be a major campaign issue), only 21 percent believe that Obamacare will be “good for the country,” and his overall job approval on the deficit has been in the mid-30s of late, suggesting that he is very weak indeed with independent voters on this issue (and the deficit is going to be another major issue this cycle).

Put all of this together, and we can conclude the following:

(1) Obama’s uptick recently has been mostly in consolidating the core Democratic vote.

(2) This is probably something that was going to happen, anyway.

(3) As Democratic defeats in 1988, 1994, and 2010 demonstrate, consolidating the Democratic vote is insufficient for victory in November. Instead, the party needs substantial support for independents.

(4) Obama is currently well below that level of independent support, and he has been for some time.

(5) More detailed polling suggests that independents strongly disapprove of the president on the major issues of the campaign.

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