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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Obama Approval Among Young Americans Down, But Still Above Average

The Harvard Institute of Politics’ new millennials poll released this week continued that group’s history of tracking college students and young Americans more generally. The admirable poll, largely run by a study group of Harvard undergraduates, is conducted by the GfK Group using its derivative of the original Knowledge Network Panel, which recruits participants via several different random-sample based methodologies to participate in its panels.

One of the key findings in this latest survey is a drop in Barack Obama’s job approval rating among 18- to 29-year-olds, from 52% in an IOP survey earlier this year to 41% in the current survey, which was in the field Oct. 30-Nov. 11 of this year. The report at one spot superimposes the results of the 18- to 29-year-olds’ job approval data on top of Gallup’s national adult tracking, with the headline "Millennial Views of Obama Now Tracking With All Adults." In other words, their data show that the “youth” bump Obama gets from 18- to 29-year-olds has disappeared.

We can take a look at that phenomenon in more detail using our Gallup Daily tracking data. We have the advantage of being able to look at 18- to 29-year-olds (and all other age groups) as a subset of the total sample of national adults -- providing an exact comparison at any and all time points. In fact, using monthly averages to give stability to our estimates, we find the gap between Obama job approval among 18- to 29-year-olds has narrowed some over time. But 18- to 29-year-olds are still more positive about Obama than the overall population. In November, for example, the average Obama job approval among 18- to 29-year-olds remains about five percentage points higher than among the total population.

The gap between Obama job approval among 18- to 29-year-olds and the total sample can vary from week to week because of sampling variance. There are a few weeks here and there when approval among 18- to 29-year-olds equals the overall average, but the monthly data show that this is not -- yet -- a sustained pattern.

So, from a broad perspective, our monthly estimates certainly confirm the general thrust of the Harvard IOP study that the “premium” Obama enjoys among young Americans is diminishing, although we conclude that it has not yet disappeared. Young people still give Obama above average approval ratings, and -- as we will see -- older Americans give him below average approval ratings.

Here are the basic data, mapped on a monthly basis dating back to January 2009, when Obama first took office, through November 2013.

Two not very surprising findings are immediately apparent. Younger Americans have consistently given Obama the highest ratings of the four major age groups since 2009. And older Americans (65+) are consistently the lowest of the four major age groups in their approval of Obama across time.

As noted, there is a tightening of the gap between younger Americans and the other three age groups in recent months. Obama has lost approval across all four age groups since his recent high point late last fall, concomitant with his re-election and its immediate aftermath. But the drop is somewhat larger among the young. As my colleague Jeff Jones outlined in his recent analysis of trends in Obama approval, approval among 18- to 29-year-olds is down 15 points from December 2012 to November 2013, compared with a drop of 12 points across the sample average during that same time period. It happens that 30- to 64-year-olds were down exactly at the sample average of 12 percentage points, while those 65 years and older were down an average of eight points.

This graph shows the deviation or gap in the approval rating for 18- to 29-year-olds and the overall sample average for each month, using three-month rolling averages in order to smooth out the variation. The results are below.

The average deviation from the sample average across all months is nine percentage points, meaning that on a three-month rolling average basis, 18- to 29-year-olds’ approval of the job Obama is doing as president since he took office in January 2009 has been nine points above the sample average. Young Americans were most positive in the period from the summer of 2009 through the beginning of 2011. Prior to this year, the least positive ratings were recorded between early 2011 and early 2012. The slope of the line is down in recent months in 2013, as I've noted, dropping steadily from May and June when it was at about the average, down to the lowest point yet, five over the average, in the three months ending in November.

This graph below shows the monthly "deviation" measure for all four age groups. There is relatively little variation in the middle age groups, with more movement among those who are young and those who are older. Again, this graph shows only the gap between the approval of the age group and the sample average, and does not represent absolute values (see the first graph in this post for those).

There are a number of different possible hypotheses for why the higher Obama job approval ratings among young people may be drifting downward at a faster pace than is true for the general population. However, it’s very difficult to ascertain empirically which reasons are the actual causal factors in this situation.

The concern for Democrats would be a transmutation of lack of approval for Obama into lowered support for Democratic candidates in future elections, such as 2014 and 2016, given that younger voters have been a core area of strength for Democrats in many recent elections. That said, young people have the distinct disadvantage of not being as interested in following politics and therefore a lower expected turnout rate on Election Day. A key will be to continue to monitor the relative support Obama gets across age groups in the months ahead.


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