Monday, June 13, 2011

Questions About Approval Numbers

Here's something I don't know: when it comes to questions about reelection, should anyone pay attention to narrow questions of presidential approval ratings on specific topics? Amy Walter tweeted an observation:
At this pt. in their 1st term Reagan, Bush '43 & Clinton all had econ approval at 47-49%. Latest Obama econ approve in our poll: 40%.
Now, one thing that certainly appears to be the case right now is that the economy is probably going to be worse in 2011-2012 than it was in 1983-1984 or 1995-1996, which is bad news for Obama. But we know that without needing to look at Obama's specific numbers on the economy.

I could imagine this breaking either way. On the one hand, it's possible that approval ratings on the economy are a more reliable leading indicator than overall approval ratings; the latter (may) be more likely to reflect long-term views on something that is likely to affect vote choice. On the other hand, it's possible that the approval-on-the-economy really tells us nothing at all that we don't already get from objective economic indicators; in that case, we're better off with the overall approval numbers. My guess, and it's only a guess, is that if what we're interested in is re-election then we should ignore the category approvals.

Beyond whatever speculation I have, however, this is an empirical question, albeit one that I never recall anyone studying. But perhaps John or Brendan or someone else knows of something that I'm not aware of. We know that approval ratings are meaningful indicators, but has anyone looked at approval on the economy, or foreign affairs, or any of the other categories that Gallup and others ask about?


  1. Not aware of any research on that. I think the problem is two-fold.
    1) We tend to think that the more we drill down, the more likely we're measuring some form of non-opinion.
    2) I don't think the data form a very good time-series. My guess (without googling) is that the data don't go back before the 1970s, and that only Gallup would have the data.

  2. John Sides may weigh in directly, but I tried (perhaps inartfully) to get at something like this in the Q&A I did with him on early polling for CJR. To paraphrase, he said wasn't too surprised to see Obama's overall approval ratings outperforming his approval on the economy -- this was shortly after OBL was killed -- but in time he expected overall approval to come more into line with economic conditions.

    John cited a lot of research in that interview, but the only thing he flagged here was Zaller's Nature & Origins of Mass Opinion, and that was to talk about the general subject of how people answer survey questions, not approval on specific issues.

    Here's the link:


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