Friday, July 22, 2011

The Obama Approval Mystery

Frank Newport of Gallup reported yesterday on a bit of a mystery in Barack Obama's approval ratings: he's doing better than he should, based on how Americans feel about the economy. Newport's speculation here; Jonathan Chait's here; Andrew Sullivan's here. Lots of plausible theories, and I have no idea which one or ones are correct.

But, hey, I might as well pile on with a completely different -- and equally speculative -- possibility. What all of the theories linked above have in common is they take Americans' views of the economy as a given, and theorize why Obama's approval rating is higher than that would predict. What if, however, what's going no has to do with views about the economy? I'm pretty sure that this story fits the top-line numbers in the data.

Let me back up a bit. What Newport actually says is that Obama is outperforming a particular question: "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?" Suppose that until recently, most Americans answered this question based on more or less the same information, and on the same basis. If things were going well in general for the nation, people said satisfied; if not, not. If that was the case, the satisfaction question would be correlated with approval ratings for weak partisans and true independents, but not for strong partisans. For them, the satisfaction answer would vary, while approval would not (that is, they would always approve of a same-party president, and never approve of an opposite-party president). Now, suppose that core GOP partisans during the Obama years no longer interpret the satisfaction question the way everyone else has, but instead are now automatic "dissatisfied" respondents as long as a Democrat is in the White House (either because the partisan news sources they listen to report the news that way, or because they interpret the question to include partisan politics, rather than economic conditions). The key is that their answer on the approval question would remain the same (extreme partisans, about a quarter of respondents on both sides, always give partisan answer on the approval question; that's why it's very rare for approval ratings to go above 75% or below 25%).

So what would have dropped out would be strong partisans, not from the president's party, who in the past might have been "satisfied" with "the way things are going" but disapproved of the president's job performance; now those same people would be dissatisfied, and disapproving.

Unfortunately, while Gallup does have the satisfaction question broken down by party for the last six months, they don't seem to have it posted going back any farther (there's a nice link at the bottom of that page to thirty years of the satisfaction question, but no crosstabs). The good news is that it would be very easy to test it, if one had the data.

Anyway, it's totally speculative as I said, and I could easily be dead wrong, but it fits what we know as well as the other theories, so I figured I should mention it.

Update: and yet another possibility, from political scientist Amy Fried. Good stuff!


  1. I think you're right, but there is another factor.

    A group of Americans which is suffering more during this recession (blacks) is also disproportionally proud of Mr. Kenyan Socialist.

    Would a Romney-Cain ticket counter that?

  2. Charlie:
    African-Americans make up a small, rather partisan group...I doubt that any difference there would make a big difference in the aggregate numbers from the partisan explanation.

    For what it's worth, I think everyone is on to something here. Partisan polarization and "Bush's fault" ring the most true to me, but I think there's a lot of stuff going on here.

  3. Polling seems to suggest the simplest answer is that country really does blame Bush, by a 2-1 margin in some polls. That would easily explain why people think its not the President's fault.

    I'm not sure to what degree the general public perceives of the extent of obstructionism or "constitutional hardball" in congress during this presidency, but voters may believe Obama's not getting his way.

    And lastly Obama's "outsider" image that he's always cultivated may still be alive in the lay public. We close observers will lament about how conventional and non-transformative his presidency has been, but the "outsider" image may have been cemented with the general electorate.

  4. Occam's Razor: The reason the President's "approval" rating outpaces people's "satisfaction" rating is because there are a substantial number of people who "approve" of the President but are, quite realistically, "dissatisified" with the country's direction. This includes a substantial number of African-Americans.(Anybody "satisfied" with the country's direction right now really needs to get a clue.) It's not because of evil (and implicitly racist) Republicans who obstinately answer "dissatisfied" just to twist the knife on their "disapproval" response, even though they actually think everything is hunky-dory in America today. Those people exist only in your imagination.

    Seriously, do you really believe there are a substantial number of partisan Republicans who, even though they genuinely disapprove of the President's performance, actually think the country is moving in the right direction but won't tell pollsters that? If so, you need to get out more and talk to some different people sometime. (I think there are fewer partisan Republicans satisfied with the country's direction than there are Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens.)


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