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.
The last Democrat to win a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Obviously, Democrats do not need to win a majority of whites to win the White House, but they need more than 37 percent.
Note as well that Obama's numbers with African Americans and Hispanics are off their highs, at least at the moment. Contrary to what one hears from promulgators of the “Emerging Democratic Majority” thesis, there are swing voters in both groups – and it looks as though Obama is not holding them at the moment, either.
What about partisan identification?
On this front, Obama is really not doing well at all. He has the partisan Democrats mostly locked down, while partisan Republicans are mostly gone. But check out the independent vote. Most independents actually are partisans, insofar as they usually lean toward one group or another. Historically, Democrats have been able to count on at least 40 percent or so of the independent vote to behave like partisan Democrats. And that is about all Obama has right now.
Finally, what about geographical regions?
This is very bad news for President Obama. Most of the swing states are in the Midwest, and he is doing quite badly there at the moment, with approval numbers that correspond roughly to what Dukakis pulled in 1988.
His numbers in the South are equally bad, and remember that he won 68 of the South’s 186 electoral votes. He will not do that this time around if he only wins 42 percent of the vote in the region.
Obviously, things could pan out differently. The president’s job approval rating could improve, moving him above that magic line of 50 percent. Alternatively, the campaign this season could go so well for Obama that he does what few incumbents before him have managed, and win a substantial share of those who disapprove of his job performance.
But with the economic outlook looking increasingly glum, and with Mitt Romney being well financed and reasonably acceptable, this president is probably going to struggle to get above 50 percent.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.