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Monday, June 27, 2011

Obama Job Approval and 2012

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has been hovering near the fault line between probable re-election and probable “one-term” presidency.

This magic line for an incumbent president is not precise, but can be considered to be at about the 48% mark.

Obama’s job approval rating has been generally in the 45% to 50% range now for about a year, with occasional forays above 50% and occasional drops below 45%. Obama's job approval rating for last week -- June 20-26 -- was 43%, tied for the lowest weekly average of his administration so far. If history holds, it will come back up again. If not, then it's a new ballgame, although not necessarily one that will affect his chances for re-election - given the 16 months between now and the election.

We have seen only 10 presidents who have sought re-election since World War II (and the advent of systematic modern polling). We don’t know, for example, what the job approval rating would have been for presidents like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren, or William Howard Taft -- all of whom were defeated in their bids for re-election. Likewise we don't know the job approval ratings of presidents like George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, or Woodrow Wilson -- all of whom ran for and won a second term.

The number of cases for which we do have poll data is too small to estimate a precise mathematical relationship between an incumbent’s job approval rating and his chances of re-election. But, as noted above, the data can at least be instructive.

Seven of the modern day 10 presidents were successful in their re-election bids (Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush).

One of these -- Harry S. Truman -- managed to win with relatively low job approval ratings. Gallup quit measuring Truman's job approval rating after June of 1948, but it was 40% at that point. He went on to beat Thomas Dewey.

Gallup's final job approval rating in October 2004 for George W. Bush was 48%. He went on to beat his fellow Yale alumnus, John Kerry.

Otherwise? Eisenhower's final pre-election job approval rating in August 1956 was 68%, Lyndon Johnson's in June 1964 was 74%, Richard Nixon's in June 1972 was 56%, Ronald Reagan's in October 1984 was 58%, and Bill Clinton's in October 1996 was 54%. All well above 50%. All were re-elected.

What about the three modern-era presidents who failed in their bid for re-election -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush?

Ford is an anomalous case, given that he had never been elected president in the first place. Ford was appointed to the vice presidency when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, and then ascended to the presidency when Richard M. Nixon also resigned in disgrace (in August 1974) . Ford had been in office only about two years when he was defeated in his bid for re-election in November 1976. Gallup's final job approval rating for Ford in June 1976 was 45%.

Both Carter and George H.W. Bush had quite low job approval ratings as they sought re-election. The final Gallup job approval rating for Jimmy Carter in September 1980 was 37%. And Gallup's final approval rating for George H.W. Bush in October 1992 was 34%.

Both Carter and Bush were seeking re-election in situations in which the public perceived the economy as being in very negative territory, and both had strong political personalities opposing them -- Reagan in the case of Carter, and Clinton in the case of Bush. Both, it seems to me, were unable to convince the public that they were working hard and on top of the changing situations confronting the nation.

Bottom line, as you can see: Presidents with job approval ratings below 48% tend to lose their bids for re-election. Presidents with ratings at the 48% level (for George W. Bush) or above 50% for the rest, tend to win. As noted, there are not many cases to work with here. As seen with Truman, exceptions can occur. But if Obama is at 50% or higher next October, it certainly would not be too risky to hypothesize that he has a better than 50-50 chance of winning re-election. And if his job approval rating is down at 43%, where it is now, his chances of winning re-election are probably lower than 50-50.

Keep in mind that Americans’ views of the U.S. economy at this point are pretty terrible, just as they were in 1980 and 1992. Any hope for perceived improvement in the U.S. economy this year has so far not come to fruition.

Most basically, views of the economy are clearly translated into presidential job approval. The worse the economy, in general, the worse a president’s job approval rating. And a president’s job approval rating, in turn, is highly related to his chances of being re-elected. There are other factors in play, of course. The changing population characteristics of the states, the fact that Obama has unswerving support from a core groups of voters, including African Americans, and the quality of the opponent Republicans will nominate to oppose Obama will all be factors next year. But everything else being equal, if Obama’s job approval rating is below 45% of so next fall, he will be in trouble. And if it is above 50% he will be looking good.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Little Change in Liberal Democrats' Strong Support for Obama

Is President Obama losing favor with “progressives” or liberals in his own party? Obama’s White House Communications Director David Pfeiffer drew fire (and boos) from those attending the Netroots Nation gathering in Minneapolis for his boss not being liberal enough on issues like gay marriage.
As one of the attendees said, there isn’t much of a chance that liberal Democrats are going to turn Republican; just that they won’t be enthusiastic -- “They might not show up the way they did in 2008.”

That appears to be a correct assessment.  Here’s a chart showing Obama’s approval ratings from his inauguration through last week for all Americans and among liberal Democrats.

Note that Obama’s approval rating among liberal Democrats has stayed high, at right around 90% -- even as his overall approval rating has fallen.

Pawlenty Apparently Gets the Message

I predicted the other day in this space that Tim Pawlenty’s consultants would be mad at him for not taking the opportunity to go for Mitt Romney’s jugular in Monday night's Republican debate in New Hampshire. Not so much based on the policies involved -- but rather because Pawlenty missed the opportunity to gain media attention with a dramatic and/or harsh criticism of Romney, and thus to gain the highly needed name identification that comes from a sharp, media-friendly incident.

Pawlenty apparently got a talking to. On Fox News' Hannity program Thursday night, Pawlenty admitted that he should have been “much more clear” in responding the moderator John King's question about Romney's plan, and that “I should have answered it directly . . .” and that he should have called Romney’s plan more into question.

No doubt if the opportunity arises again, Pawlenty won't hesitate to be more harsh in his comments.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Most Republicans Know Little About Ryan Medicare Plan

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial Medicare proposal received a good deal of focus in the GOP debate in New Hampshire on Monday night.  CNN moderator John King first zeroed in on the Ryan plan when talking to Newt Gingrich, whose comments about the plan on Meet the Press a few weeks ago had caused major repercussions in the news media and among news pundits and commentators across the spectrum.

KING:  Mr. Speaker, I want to bring you into this conversation, because I'm looking down -- I want to get the words just right -- your initial reaction to the Ryan plan? It's radical right-wing social engineering. Then you backtracked. Why?

GINGRICH: Well, first of all, it was a very narrow question, which said, should Republicans impose an unpopular bill on the American people? Now, I supported the Ryan budget as a general proposal. I actually wrote a newsletter supporting the Ryan budget. And those words were taken totally out of context.

I'm happy to repeat them. If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you better slow down.

Remember, we all got mad at Obama because he ran over us when we said don't do it. Well, the Republicans ought to follow the same ground rule. If you can't convince the American people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea. So let me start there.

Second, there are certain things I would do different than Paul Ryan on Medicare. I agree strongly with him on Medicaid, and I think it could be done. 

Then former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brought up the Ryan plan:

SANTORUM: I believed that people could work and they could succeed. And we brought people together. I got 70 votes to end a federal entitlement -- to end a federal entitlement which was what Paul Ryan's proposed for Medicaid, he's proposed for food stamps, he's proposed for other welfare programs.


SANTORUM: No. We have a $1.4 trillion deficit, and it isn't getting any better anytime soon. We have to deal with this problem now. And what Paul Ryan has suggested, which I wholeheartedly support, is to use a program that is identical to what seniors already have. It's called Medicare Part D.


SANTORUM:  What Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum want to do, which is not radical, which is take a program, Medicare prescription drugs, that is 41 percent under budget, because seniors are involved in controlling costs, and apply it all to Medicare. It is the right approach for Medicare.

The Ryan plan also came up as part of Georgia businessman Herman Cain's discourse at the debate.

CAIN: We don't need to slow down. I hate to tell you -- I hate to be the one to give you the bad news, Doctor. You're not going to get most of the money you put into Medicare if we don't restructure it.

The reason we're in the situation we are today with Medicare and Social Security is because the problem hasn't been solved. We can no longer rearrange it. We've got to restructure those programs. And the Paul Ryan approach I totally support.  And he has been very courageous in taking the lead on this.

All of this certainly suggests that the Ryan plan is a significant part of the way in which the news media and political candidates are thinking about the key issues involved in this presidential race.

There's just one problem.

Most Republicans nationwide don’t appear to have much of a clue as to what this discussion is about.

A recent June 8-11 USA Today/Gallup poll asked 851 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents the following question: "Based on what you have heard or read about it, do you favor or oppose the proposal by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan to change the Medicare system for people who are currently younger than 55, or don’t you know enough to say?"

The answers?  Twenty-four percent of Republicans said that they favored the plan.  Eight percent said that they opposed the plan.  That leaves a grand total of 68% of Republicans who said they didn't know enough about the Ryan plan to have an opinion. 

Other recent polls show the same thing.

A CBS News poll conducted June 3-7 showed that the “changes to the Medicare system recently proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans” were "confusing" to 71% of Republicans. Only 17% of Republicans interviewed said they had a good understanding of the Ryan proposals.

A Pew Research poll conducted May 25-30 didn't mention the name Paul Ryan, but instead asked Republicans how much they had heard about  “a proposal to change Medicare into a program that would give future participants a credit toward purchasing private health insurance coverage.”  Exactly 16% of Republicans said they had heard "a lot" about the proposal.  Another 57% said that they had heard “a little” (which is a face saving response), while 26% admitted they had heard nothing at all.

What does this tell us?  It tells us that average rank-and-file Republicans out there across the country are paying less attention to some of the issues that are consuming the party's leadership than might be thought. 

Much of the focus of today's political campaigning consists of back and forth between candidates, their campaign teams, paid consultants, reporters and commentators and pundits desperate for a story line.  All of this ping ponging -- and often the manufacturing of the controversies of the day -- is carried on blissfully above the heads of the average citizens out there across the land.

Of course, this insight is not new.  That's why savvy political consultants tell their clients that their image will be in large part formed by only a few incidents or statements (out of the thousands made) that are picked up and amplified by the media. 

One example of this, of course, is the brief statement about the Ryan plan made by Gingrich on Meet the Press. That issue was picked up and became a huge talking point for the squadron of talking heads and pundits and Internet scribes looking for "content" to fulfill their obligation to discourse meaningfully on the election. The fact that most Republicans don't know much at all about the Ryan plan wasn't a part of that discourse.

In a different way, Tim Pawlenty faced this same type of situation Monday in the New Hampshire debate.  He was given the opportunity to turn to front-runner Mitt Romney and create drama by directly criticizing Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan as being nothing different than Obama's healthcare plan.  Pawlenty chose not to do so.  He was civil instead, and backed away from direct criticism. Which was fine, and the kind of thing that you or I would probably do in a similar situation.  But, Pawlenty was, no doubt, chided by his consultants the next day for having missed the opportunity to take advantage of an opportunity to define himself with an "incident".  Had Pawlenty been uncivil and drilled in on Romney, making Romney squirm and the audience uncomfortable, he would have been the beneficiary of a positive storyline the next day (replete with video clips had Pawlenty managed to say something harsh enough while looking at Romney) and hence stood out from the crowd, which is what Pawlenty, with his low 54% name identification, needs. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Newt Gingrich Campaign Already in Trouble Before Staff Resignations

At least 16 members of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign's entire staff have resigned en masse over campaign differences. This has caused campaign observers to opine that Gingrich’s probability of gaining the GOP nomination is low. The former Speaker of the House and Tulane Ph.D. says that he will continue to campaign nevertheless. The less-than-rosy news for Gingrich is that even before this latest incident, Gallup tracking showed his was showing every sign of being in big trouble.

Take a look at this graph of Gingrich’s Positive Intensity Score among Republicans:

At times earlier this year, Gingrich’s Positive Intensity Score was 19, on par with other well-known potential candidates.

Now, it’s plummeted to 4, barely above the bottom-ranked score of 2 for Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. Among all of the 84% of Republicans who know Gingrich, 10% say they have a strongly favorable view of him, while 6% say they have a strongly unfavorable view. That’s what gives him the Positive Intensity Score of +4.

More broadly, 33% of Republicans who recognize Gingrich have a generally unfavorable view of him. That’s the highest unfavorable percentage of any candidate, slightly above Sarah Palin’s 29% (and Gary Johnson’s 30%, although Johnson’s is on a small base since only 17% of Republicans recognize him).

Prior to the announcement that most of his campaign staff was deserting him, Gingrich had endured negative press coverage of his characterizations of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals to reform Medicare, and of the revelations on his wife’s financial disclosure forms of a large revolving chart accounts at Tiffany’s.

We’ll have data on Gingrich from new polling on both Monday and Tuesday of this coming week.

Meanwhile, the current discussion du jour centers on whether or not Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- a Texas A&M graduate, former farmer, and former Air Force pilot -- will jump into the GOP race. Perry has been governor of Texas for over 10 years, the longest such tenure in the Lone Star State’s history. We have no national measure of Perry at this point, although we may soon begin to get read on how well known he is.

At this point, the world also awaits decisions by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann on whether or not they will join the presidential race. If Palin decides not to, that removes one more well-known candidate from the list, leaving Mitt Romney,Gingrich, and Ron Paul as the only candidates recognized by three-quarters of Republican rank and file party members across the nation.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Can the Image of Congress Get Any Lower?

I was asked Monday night on a television talk show about the impact of the revelations by Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York that he had “exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years…” and then engaged in a cover up when the photos became public.

My reply was that it probably wouldn't have much of an effect. The public's image of Congress as an institution, and of the members of Congress as a body, cannot get much lower.

This incident will, in all probability, serve to reinforce existing low perceptions of Congress rather than lowering them any further. In other words, by this point, when confronted by the sight of a tearful member of Congress confessing into the camera that he had "made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about most," and that he lied about it afterwards, the average American most likely says, “So, what else is new?”

Let’s look first at the perceived honesty and ethics of members of Congress. This is germane given that Rep. Weiner directly lied to reporters and to the public when first asked about the photos.

We ask Americans each year to rate the “honesty and ethical standards of people" in a variety of professions, using a scale of very high, high, average, low, or very low. We usually report the percent who rate each profession “very high” or “high.”

At the top of the list this past November were nurses, with an honesty and ethics rating of 81%, followed by military officers at 73%, and pharmacists at 71%. Others with ratings at 60% or higher included grade school teachers and medical doctors.

At the bottom of the list? Lobbyists and car salespeople, with 7% honesty and ethics ratings each, followed in third place from the bottom by “members of Congress” at 9%. Rated as having more honesty and ethics than members of Congress were business executives, lawyers, newspaper reporters, and auto mechanics among a wide variety of other professions.

To be more specific, here is the breakdown of the honesty and ethics ratings of members of Congress by the American public:
  • 1% very high
  • 8% high
  • 32% average 
  • 35% low 
  • 22% very low

The 22% "very low" rating for members of Congress is the lowest of any profession except lobbyists. Of course, given the frequency with which members of Congress become lobbyists, perhaps their proximity in the list is not surprising.

Now, what about confidence in institutions? The news is worse. Out of 16 institutions tested last year, Congress was dead last. Only 11% of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress, putting it below big business, health maintenance organizations, organized labor, and television news.

At the top of the list? The military, with a 76% confidence rating, followed by small business with a 66% rating, and the police with a 59% rating.

Given these already-low perceptions of the honesty and ethics of members of Congress and of respect for the institution, as noted, there is very little that a single member of Congress can do that mathematically would make the image of Congress worse.

Meanwhile, will Rep. Weiner's confession that he tweeted an inappropriate photo of himself to a young woman, that he exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with at least six women, and any new revelations still to come affect Americans' views of morality in this country?

Not likely. At this point, 3% of Americans rate the overall state of moral values in this country as excellent, and 20% rate them as good.  That leaves 38% who rate them as only fair and 38% who rate them as poor.  Furthermore, 69% say that the state of moral values in this country is getting worse (although that's actually not as negative as five years ago, when 82% said moral values were getting worse).

Rep. Weiner was at pains to point out that he never had "physical relationships" with these women "at any time." Based on his statements, he did not commit adultery, something which 91% of Americans say is morally unacceptable.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Are We Really Down to Just Three GOP Candidates?

Time magazine's Mark Halperin contemplates who is going to win the GOP nomination and announces that it will be one of three governors: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, or Jon Huntsman. “As of now, one of the former governors -- Romney, Huntsman, and Pawlenty -- will almost certainly be the party’s presidential nominee," Halperin writes.

Halperin puts the odds of Romney winning at 2 to 1, Huntsman at 9 to 2, and Pawlenty at 5 to 1.

The basis for Halperin’s crystal ball selections is unknown. Halperin is presumably as savvy as most political pundits about polling and empirical research. But it’s obvious he is stretching far beyond empirical data with his current prognostications.

At the moment, the data do suggest that Romney -- who officially announced Thursday -- can be considered to be a front-runner. For one thing, Romney's high name ID carries him to the top of the list in Gallup's latest "trial heat" poll. However, and this is a big "however," Romney gets just 17% of the “vote” of Republicans nationwide, lower than the 22% who say they can’t make a choice. Romney receives a Positive Intensity Score that is roughly as high as that given to the other well-known candidates. His score is, howevver, behind the less-well known candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, and behind where Mike Huckabee was before he dropped out.

Data from actual Republican voters are not giving off any indications that Huntsman or Pawlenty are among their top choices for their party’s presidential nomination.

Let’s look at the case of former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman.

Although certainly attractive on paper -- wealthy, Ivy League graduate, former state governor, fluent in Mandarin Chinese -- less than a third of Republicans nationwide recognize Huntsman's name. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that those who do recognize his name are not at all impressed, giving Huntsman one of the three lowest Positive Intensity Scores that we measure here at Gallup. His stint as President Obama’s Ambassador to China may actually be hurting Huntsman among Republicans. When Huntsman is included in a list of candidates read to Republicans, exactly 2% choose him as their preferred nominee.

So, the assumption that Huntsman (who has not yet declared officially that he is going to run, of course) will be a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination is based on something other than views of actual Republicans.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, one of Halperin’s other three assumed winners is -- unlike Huntsman -- an officially announced candidate, and half of Republicans know him. That’s up 10 percentage points from mid-March. But the University of Minnesota graduate's relatively low recognition means that he scores down the list when Republicans are asked for whom they will vote when given a list of possible candidates. Pawlenty gets 6% of the vote.

Pawlenty actually has just about the same following as Romney based on those who know the candidates. Pawlenty's Positive Intensity Score is 15, compared with Huntsman’s 8 and Romney’s 14. Pawlenty's Positive Intensity Score can be grouped with those of Romney, Sarah Palin, and Rick Santorum.

It is true that Pawlenty is from Minnesota -- contiguous to Iowa -- which could give him a reasonable chance to do well in that state’s caucuses. And this, in turn, could help him as the nomination process moves on. Of course the same advantage presumably accrues to Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

All in all, the data suggest that Romney has the ingredients of a potential winner, that Pawlenty is a wait-and-see candidate as his name ID grows, and that Hunstman shows no signs on any indicator -- yet -- that he is blossoming into a potential contender.

One would have to say from an evidence-based viewpoint that Sarah Palin is as much a possible winner as any of the three male governors on which Halperin focuses. She gets essentially the same trial-heat candidate support as Romney, and she has as good a Positive Intensity Score.

Palin is one of four Republicans who at this point generate the most passion among rank-and-file Republicans. That group also includes Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich. The first three of these generate a lot of positive passion. The last two generate a relatively high amount of negative passion.

Right now Herman Cain, Michele Bachman, and Sarah Palin stand out with strong favorable ratings of 27%, 23%, and 22%, respectively. In terms of strong unfavorable ratings, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are at the top of the list, with 8% and 7%, respectively.

None of the three individuals that Halperin calls attention to generate strong passion at this point.

Maybe the race will eventually come down to the three people Halperin nominates. But one cannot make that prognostication at this point using currently available data.

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