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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Questions and Answers About Obama's "Stunning Decline"

A number of readers have posted interesting and insightful comments on my Aug. 13 entry “Does the Evidence Support an Obama 'Meltdown' and 'Stunning Decline' in Approval Ratings?”

1. Several readers perspicaciously noted that, since my posting, Obama’s approval numbers have taken a relative nosedive:

“Post-mosque issue, the stunning decline will materialize by August 19 or so in the Gallup 3-day rolling average.”

“Well, now Obama’s down to 43%. So that’s 20 points down. Second to worst on the list. That is dramatic.”

“Now that his approval is down to 42%, can you re-write this article for us?”

“oops...O approval now down to 42% and falling.”

These points are, of course, on target. I wrote my piece on Friday, Aug. 13, when Obama’s job approval rating based on the three-day average was at 44%, and when his previous week’s average had been 45%. Since then, Obama's approval rating not only dropped to 43% and then 42% for several days, but is now (as of the three-day average Aug. 15-17) at 41%, with 52% disapproval. So, I agree there is more evidence of a “stunning decline” now than there was last week when I originally wrote the piece.

I based most of my analysis of Obama’s decline in our weekly averages, which at 44% last week (Aug. 9-15) was still not much different than the 45% I used in the analysis. We only have three days of reporting under our belt for this week, so we will need to wait and see how this week’s average ends up. So far, of course, it looks like the weekly average will be down. I’ll update my views on how stunning the decline is after this week’s data are all in.


One reader suggests that the “mosque issue” has been the proximate cause for the decline this week. That’s a reasonable hypothesis. Our data show that among the 57% or so of Americans who have an opinion on Obama’s comments on the mosque situation, disapproval is significantly higher than approval. Those who strongly disapprove are twice as prevalent as those who strongly approve.

2. “Reagan had a more critical media environment and thus his lower ratings are more significant than Obama’s in a positive media environment.”

Hard to make a definitive judgment on this point. The reader hypothesizes that the media is positive toward a Democratic president today and was less positive toward a Republican president in the past, which would mirror a common perception on the part of some that the news media has a leftward bias.  But there is no way of accurately gauging if the media is more friendly toward President Obama now than the media were to Reagan in the 1980s. I’m not sure that the White House would agree -- with all of the influential conservative talk shows, conservative cable news programs, and conservative blogs -- that the news media in a general sense is positive toward the president today.

It is certainly the conventional wisdom that the nature of news coverage today makes it harder for any elected official to go about his or her business.

I thought Todd Purdum's long article in the most recent Vanity Fair had good insights on this phenomenon. We clearly have a more bifurcated media setup today -- with more and more news entities/online news sites positioning themselves up on one side of the political spectrum or the other. This means that for any elected official at the state or national level, there are always writers, journalists, bloggers, and talk show hosts lurking about, ready to pounce on any errant statement or position. It’s certainly a very tough role for a president today. It's not clear that Ronald Reagan had it tougher, news-wise.

3. “There was no corresponding analysis of the disapproval number in this blog. I think this would be necessary . . .”

Most of our trends and historical analysis are based on the approval rating. Since this is a binary measure, disapproval in general will go up when approval goes down, although differing levels of “don’t knows” can mean that one can go up in theory without a corresponding drop in the other. Overall, I think a focus on approval ratings is appropriate in most cases.

4. “A key factor is missing in this analysis: Race. Polls show that ~88% of African Americans still strongly support Obama. The non-African American slide in support is much more significant . . .

It is true that Obama enjoys very high support among blacks, as was the case in general for the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Gallup provides a detailed update on Obama’s job approval rating among racial and ethnic groups here, so it is possible for the interested observer to follow these trends closely.

Given that Obama has maintained high support among blacks, it is a mathematical certainty that if his overall approval rating drops, it is dropping most among non-blacks. Still, the key focus point is his overall rating, particularly in comparison to other presidents, all of whom enjoyed strong support among certain segments of the population.

5. “Why is LBJ missing?”

He’s missing from the tables because -- as noted in the subtitle of each table -- the data deal with the first and second years in office among elected presidents only. Lyndon Johnson did not enter office as an elected president, so the environment in which he served during his first and second years (i.e., following the assassination of a highly popular president) was distinctly different from presidents elected in November and taking office in a standard way in January.

Same thing for President Gerald Ford, who took office after Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974.

6. “I travel extensively as part of my job in the U.S. I have not met a single person who believes that Obama is doing a good job.”

Well, that’s why we do random sample, scientific public opinion polling. Many Americans tend to socialize with and come into contact with individuals who share their demographic characteristics, lifestyles, and viewpoints. It is easy for us, as a result, to begin to conclude that the rest of the world shares our beliefs. This is particularly true in an environment today in which Americans selectively expose themselves to media that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs and in which Americans tend to avoid media that might contradict those beliefs.

Survey research is designed to give representation to the entire country’s adult population. Even with the drop in his approval ratings in recent days, Barack Obama’s job performance is approved of by about 4 out of 10 American adults. Not coming into contact with a single one of these suggests less than totally random travels across the country.

2 comments:

Drew Linkman, pen name said...
August 23, 2010 at 8:59 AM  

Would be interesting to see if Gallup can pinpoint the reasons for Obama's weekend rebound in numbers. My guess: It is due to a number of stories by Reuters, CNN and other kilted decidedly to make opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque seem emotional and intolerant, stories notably incomplete by leaving out the information that another NYC mosque is available just 12 blocks away. CNN went a step further: in covering the story on Gallup's discovery that many American's suspect that Obama is a Muslim, the CNN anchor stated, "Everybody knows that President Obama is a Christian." This against an independent report that Obama told the leader of Egypt, in a private session, that he is a Muslim....

Anonymous said...
September 14, 2010 at 7:44 AM  

Is a one-point difference significant? In a standard poll, that would be within the margin of error and not notable at all. Can you explain?

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