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Morning Jay: Why Obama Is in Trouble

6:00 AM, Jul 11, 2012 • By JAY COST
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When you see a new poll, what do you look at first? With the general election campaign nominally underway, most people would say that they look at the head-to-head matchup between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

But I’m still intensely focused on the president’s job approval numbers.

The reason has to do with my view of a presidential campaign when an incumbent is on the ballot. Based on my read of the history and the political science research on the subject, I’ve put together a rough outline of how the average voter makes up his mind. It looks something like this:

Basically, the vote choice begins with the broadest consideration of American politics – i.e. which party you affiliate with – and then on to how you think the country is doing. Together, those two factors likely determine whether you think the incumbent president has done a good job.

All of that happens before the campaign has even begun. This serves as the backdrop for how you respond to the campaign. If, for instance, you are a Democrat who thinks the country is on the right track and Obama has done a good job, the hurdle Mitt Romney will have to jump is, for all intents and purposes, insuperable. If, on the other hand, you’re a partisan Republican who thinks the country is in terrible shape and Obama is awful, then the GOP already has your vote in the bag.

The decisive variable here is your evaluation of the president. That will determine how persuasive one side or the other has to be to get your vote. And notice that the above picture includes the net campaign effects. In other words, what is the end result when the two sides deploy their hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising?

Campaigns are important, but that does not mean they are decisive. The reason is that the two sides usually neutralize the other – both sides tend to be equally well-funded, their campaign strategists, media mavens, and other specialists tend to be equally skillful, and so on. Thus, their net effect tends to be pretty minimal.

Accordingly, what we are usually left with his the following axiom: A president usually pulls in a vote share roughly equal to his job approval rating.

This is not always the case – for instance, the George McGovern campaign in 1972 was such a disaster that Richard Nixon ended up winning a larger share of the vote than his approval rating would have suggested. Similarly, Jimmy Carter in 1980 had seen major defections among Democrats in terms of his job approval, but many of them voted for him anyway because Ronald Reagan and John Anderson were simply not acceptable choices. In most instances, though, this axiom holds true. Both 1972 and 1980, after all, saw the collapse of the Democratic coalition, something we are not going to see this time.

Where does that leave Obama at the moment?

After the back-to-back debacles of 1980 and 1984, the Democratic party essentially rebuilt its core coalition. Since 1988 the party has not fallen below 46 percent of the two party vote, either in the presidential contest or the national House race. That looks to be the core Democratic base of support in this country.

If we go by his job approval, this is roughly all President Obama is holding at the moment. He pulls in a little bit more in most polls most of the time, but not very much. The most recent read from the RealClearPolitics average of polls has him at 46.8 percent approval. (And the bulk of those polls are either polls of adults or registered voters, which tend to be more favorable to Democrats than the actual electorate.)

Moreover, the same holds true when we look at different groups. For this, we can turn to the Gallup poll, which offers a fantastic amount of data on a weekly basis. The following chart compares Obama’s job approval among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics (averaged over the last four weeks) against the performance of the Democratic candidate for president in 1988, 2004, and 2008.

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