Does Obama’s personal favorability rating matter?
posted at 6:15 am on August 21, 2011 by Karl
I really don’t want to single out National Journal’s Reid Wilson, because he’s far from the only one in the establishment media selling the idea that Pres. Obama’s personal approval ratings may save him:
President Obama, whose job-approval ratings are mired well south of 50 percent, has an important factor breaking his way as he seeks another term: Americans still overwhelmingly like the guy.
There is a partial correlation, pollsters say, between a politician’s job-approval ratings and favorability ratings. Favorability ratings generally represent a ceiling, above which job-approval ratings do not rise. And poor job-approval ratings, over the long term, can prove a drag on an incumbent’s favorability ratings. A short-term drop in approval ratings doesn’t portend a corresponding drop in personal favorability—but when favorable numbers begin to descend, it’s an ominous sign for anyone planning to run for another term.
Polling consistently shows that the majority of Americans view Obama favorably, even while they increasingly disagree with his job performance. There is a nuance to voter sentiment, pollsters say, one that provides Obama with a path to reelection. But the disconnect between the two numbers, if it ever shrinks, could also become a leading indicator that the president’s chances for a second term are headed south.
In a related vein, we find Larry Sabato shrugging off Obama’s sagging approval numbers:
The current White House certainly wouldn’t claim that President Obama is riding a crest of popularity just now. And there’s no guarantee that his wave will ever return. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that three predecessors — Truman, Reagan, and Clinton — were reelected after having suffered the dirty 30s in the first term. Three others were not reelected — Ford, Carter, and Bush 41 (and arguably LBJ as well, though he withdrew before facing the voters in 1968).
However, as John Podhoretz notes, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush went on either to lose the next election or to not run again; Reagan and Clinton hit the 30s, but their numbers rebounded because the economy improved. (Sabato is thinking of Truman in 1948 , which technically was not a re-election campaign and where Truman was buoyed by a rising economy more than most remember).
Moreover, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels will tell you that a candidate’s personal favorability only matters at the margins:
Using survey data from the six most recent presidential elections, the contours are examines [sic] of the candidates’ images (traits), the bases of those images in voters’ more fundamental political predispositions, and the impact of voters’ assessments of the candidates’ personal qualities on individual voting behaviour and on aggregate election outcomes. In stark contrast with the popular conception of contemporary electoral politics as candidate–centred and image–driven, it is argued that candidates’ images are largely epiphenomenal and have only a modest impact on election outcomes. This conclusion is underlined by the analysis given of the 2000 (Bush vs. Gore) presidential election, in which the estimated impact of voters’ assessments of the candidates’ personalities was even smaller than in the previous five elections considered here, although quite probably large enough to be decisive in an election decided by a few hundred votes in a single state.
At this juncture, Pres. Obama and the Democrats have to hope that the sputtering economy only dials back the electorate from 2008 (where Democratic turnout exceeded GOP turnout by five percent) to a more evenly split electorate along the lines of 2000 or 2004. Under those cirumstances, the GOP’s candidate selection — and the Democrat Media Complex’s ability to demonize that nominee — could make a difference in enough swing states to eke out a second term for Obama. Otherwise, the public’s cognitive dissonance between Obama’s personal and job approval ratings will be resolved by people deciding they do not like a guy who fails.