Daily polls can make your head spin, and getting too excited or distressed by a single poll is never advisable. But sometimes, a clear trend emerges in poll after poll that cannot be denied. And that trend is now beyond dispute: a majority of American voters think Barack Obama is not doing a good job as our President. Looking at the RealClearPolitics polling average, Obama has:
-Had more voters disapprove than approve of his job performance every day since early June;
-Seen over 50% disapproval consistently since early August;
-Seen the disapprovals outnumber the approvals by double digits on November 8 for the first time in his presidency, and stay there; and
-Hit 55% disapproval five days ago and stay above that level.
Obama's approval is now down to 40.5%, registering above 42% in only one poll in the average, Rasmussen Reports (Rasmussen, once a reliable if somewhat GOP-leaning pollster, has become increasingly volatile and less transparent since the departure of its founder Scott Rasmussen, who started scaling back his involvement earlier this year and left the company in August). It's possible that it may drop below 40 for the first time any day now, as it's no longer rare to see individual polls with a 38 or 39% rating - an approval rating lower than crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Over at the Huffington Post's HuffPost Pollster page, Obama's approval rating is so low it has literally fallen off the chart; you have to adjust the default settings (which bottom out at 42.5%) to find it:
In one bit of irony, consider Mitt Romney's famous remark:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.
As far as approving of this President, Romney has been proven wrong: Obama's approval rating hasn't seen 47% since June 10.
It's true, of course, that a chunk of the people disapproving of Obama are his own 2012 supporters - but that's the point! Presidents don't really get in trouble until they start disenchanting their own side. It's also true, as we recall from 2012, that national polls of this nature are not as precise as state-by-state polling in predicting voter behavior and turnout - but a persistent and growing gap this size is hard to hide, and if you use HuffPo's widget (which lets you examine a sub-sample of pollsters) to back out the impact of Gallup and Rasmussen, Obama's numbers get worse, not better.
Why does all this matter? Let's quote a few of the arguments.
Sean Trende looks at the impact on 2014 House races, although of course the calculus as to the map is quite different for Senate races:
[P]residential job approval is still the most important variable for how his party fares in midterm elections, explaining about half of the variance. The relationship is highly statistically significant: For every point in job approval the president loses, his party loses 0.6 percent of its caucus. (The chart doesn’t measure drop in job approval; just job approval.) So, at 60 percent, the president should lose 5 percent of his caucus; at 50 percent, it is around 12 percent of his caucus lost; at 40 percent, it’s about 18 percent of his caucus lost -- which would be 36 seats.
Now the latter is highly unlikely to happen. To pick up 36 seats, the GOP would have to win every seat that Obama won with 56 percent of the vote or less in 2012...Because the GOP’s seat total is well above its historical average (the third-largest majority since 1946), 40 seats probably describes the universe of potentially competitive seats, rather than the number of seats that Democrats are likely to lose.
As I’ve said before, this election isn’t going to be about sixth-year itches or any such electoral mumbo-jumbo. It’s going to be about presidential job approval, supplemented by the state of the economy (which also affects job approval to a degree) and how overexposed or underexposed the president’s party is. Right now, the second factor provides a drag beyond the president’s job approval, while the third factor will work heavily to Democrats’ advantage on Election Day.
With that said, the best midterm showing for the party of a president with a sub-45 percent job approval came in 1950, when the Democrats lost 11 percent of their caucus. This election occurred under fairly similar circumstances: Harry Truman was unpopular, but his party was well below the number of seats it typically held and the economy was growing.
Chris Cillizza notes the impact on Obama's ability to get things done, and that the trendline of his approval rating is more in common with that of George W. Bush than more popular second-term presidents like Reagan and Clinton who left their party in good shape in the next national election:
The loss of the Senate majority and a smaller minority in the House after November 2014 would make any attempt to rack up second-term accomplishments before he left office extremely difficult for Obama. Combine that with the reality that Obama’s second term has not exactly been larded with major wins to date and you understand why Obama and his legacy are on the ballot in 2014 — even if his name is not. And that means his poll numbers matter. A lot.
John Sides at The Monkey Cage noted back in June how much this can matter:
[I]t matters for whether the President gets what he wants from Congress—with some caveats. Here’s a sense of some of the scholarly literature on the relationship between presidential approval and legislative success. One question is whether Congress simply passes legislation that the president supports. In one study (gated) of 208 roll call votes in the House between 1989-2000, political scientists Brandice Canes-Wrone and Scott de Marchi found the House was more likely to do what the president wanted when the president was more popular. This effect was only significant among legislation that was both salient (mentioned a lot in news coverage) and somewhat complex (focusing on regulatory matters in particular). But, of course, that’s exactly the kind of legislation—e.g., immigration, gun control—that Obama would like to sign right now.
Another question is whether the legislation that passes is actually substantively close to what the president wanted. That is, the president may support legislation as long as it is closer to his preferences than the status quo, but still may not get what he wanted. Political scientists Andrew Barrett and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha examined (pdf) 191 different major laws passed between 1965 and 2000 and measured how similar they were to what the president had asked for. Was the law basically a rubber stamp of the president’s position? Did the law force the president to compromise with congressional leaders? Or did the president sign it even though it was nothing like what he wanted? Barrett and Eshbaugh-Soha find that presidential approval was associated with laws that looked more like the president’s preferences.
Harry Enten noted in September that the odds are against Obama recovering by 2014: "The president's approval rating has never increased by more than 7pt from this point after re-election until the midterm election."
Enten, after looking at 2014, notes that the impact goes beyond it to 2016:
[T]he president's approval plays a role in the election to find his successor. Once we control for the economy, every 5pt increase in a president's net approval rating increases his party's candidate's margin by 1pt in the presidential election per Drew Linzer. An election his party might have won by 1pt had the incumbent president had a +5pt net approval rating becomes an election the incumbent party loses by 1pt with a -5pt rating.
By and large, presidents whose parties have done badly in 6th-year midterm elections have also seen their party lose ground in the national popular vote in the next election. Here, I charted out the parties from best to worst showings in holding onto their share of the popular vote in the next presidential election following a two-term presidency, and how they had done in the prior midterm - for example, the Democrats lost 0.9 points in the popular vote from 1996 to 2000, and I line that up here with their showing in the 1998 midterms; Republicans lost 7.8 points in 1960 from 1956, and I line that up with the 1958 midterms.
Here's an expanded chart with a few more of the post-1860 presidents who don't fit as neatly (for example, the GOP in 1904 had held the White House for 8 years, but its candidate was an incumbent, not a new contender trying to run on the party brand).
Here's two charts lining up the showings overall of parties seeking to defend a presidential race after re-electing an incumbent; historically, Democrats have struggled slightly more than Republicans in hanging onto their share of the voters:
Note that Obama only won the popular vote in 2012 by 3.9 points, and there was no significant third-party candidate, so if the Democrats lose 2 or more points off their 2012 showing, they lose the popular vote (and you can win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, as Bush did in 2000, but mathematically it's almost impossible to do so unless it's so close as to be almost a tie). In other words, if the Democrat in 2016 falls off Obama's 2012 showing by 2 or more points, there's a high likelihood that the next President will be a Republican - and the only non-incumbents running after an incumbent was re-elected (and thus, seeking a de facto third term with a new candidate) to suffer less than a 4-point falloff in popular vote were Gore in 2000 and Hoover in 1928.
None of this should suggest that Republicans don't have problems of our own, or that success is about to fall inevitably into our laps. But with 55% of the public disapproving Obama and unlikely to change their minds in significant numbers, there's a major opportunity for the GOP ahead.