Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Gensis Planet
Obama fails all viability tests
The fundamental flaw with much of what passes for political analysis is the tendency to think small. I blame soccer moms for this. Not the moms themselves — or their more rough-and-tumble companions from four years later, Nascar dads — but the narrow worldview that these demographic labels represent. The sophomoric strategist thinks he can slice the American electorate into a million little pieces and make it more than the sum of its parts. The smart one recognizes our common bonds.
A recent example of the flawed type of thinking came in September, after Democrats lost a special election to fill Anthony Weiner’s old seat in a Brooklyn district with a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jewish voters. There was much commentary about Obama’s popularity among Jewish Americans and about what this could mean — most importantly for his prospects in Florida.
Obama does indeed have a “Jewish problem.” Polls find that his standing among Jews has deteriorated: only about 54 percent of them approved of his performance in the most recent Gallup survey. But this is to be expected when a president has a 40-something approval rating. He also has a Hispanic problem and a problem among the white working class. He has a problem in Ohio and a problem in Florida and a problem in New Hampshire. He even has, to a mild extent, an African-American problem: Obama’s approval ratings among black voters are still high, but down to about 80 percent from 90 percent.
All of these, however, are symptoms of Obama’s larger problems, a set of three fundamental misgivings shared by much of the American electorate.
• First, many of us understand that Barack Obama inherited a terrible predicament. We have a degree of sympathy for the man. But we have concerns, which have been growing over time, about whether he’s up to the job.
• Second, most of us are gravely concerned about the economy. We’re not certain what should be done about it, but we’re frustrated.
• Third, enough of us are prepared to vote against Obama that he could easily lose. It doesn’t mean we will, but we might if the Republican represents a credible alternative and fits within the broad political mainstream.
Each of these factors, in turn, can be quantified.
• The first factor, Americans’ performance reviews of Obama, can be measured through his approval ratings.
• The second factor, economic performance, can be measured through statistics like G.D.P.
• The third factor — essentially, the ideological positioning of the Republican candidate — is sometimes thought of as an “intangible.” But it can be measured too, and it matters a great deal.
As we get closer to the election and more data become available, we can indulge — even encourage! — greater complexity in the analysis. Figuring out how Obama is performing in individual states and how this translates to the Electoral College, for instance, requires a fair amount of attention to detail. But it is premature to do that now. Instead we should think big, and focus on the three fundamentals.
A president’s approval rating at the beginning of his third year in office has historically had very little correlation to his eventual fate. In January 1983, Reagan had an approval rating of just 37 percent, but he won in a landslide. George H. W. Bush had a 79 percent approval rating in January 1991 and was soundly defeated. But voters start to think differently about a president over the course of his third year; they view him more on the basis of his performance and less on the hopes they had for him. These perceptions are sharpened by the beginning of the opposition party’s primary campaign, which, of course, accentuates the negatives.
A president’s approval rating toward the end of his third year, therefore, has been a decent (although imperfect) predictor of his chances of victory. Reagan saw his approval rating shoot up to 51 percent in November 1983 amid the V-shaped recovery from the recession of the previous year — the first sign that he was headed for a big win. Obama’s approval rating may have rebounded by a point or two from its lows after the debt-ceiling debacle — but not by much more than that. In late October, it ranged between 40 and 46 percent in different polls and averaged about 43 percent.
There have been two presidents stuck with similarly low approval ratings a year in advance of the next election. Gerald Ford had a 44 percent approval rating a year before his loss to Carter. Johnson had a 41 percent approval rating in November 1967, and although he was eligible for another term, he opted not to run. His vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, did, and he lost.
In fact, since 1944 (when approval ratings first became reliable), there have been five cases in which the incumbent party’s president had an approval rating below 49 percent a year ahead of the election — as Obama almost certainly will, unless he finds the cure for cancer after our issue goes to print — and each time the incumbent party lost.
It would be possible, however, to draw some improper conclusions from this. The more robust way to analyze these data is not just to consider the winners and losers, but also their margins of victory or defeat. Ford and Humphrey (serving as Johnson’s surrogate) may have lost their elections, but not by much — Ford by just 2 points, and Humphrey by 1. The correct conclusion, then, is that other factors being equal, an approval rating in the low 40s a year before the election makes a president a slight but not overwhelming underdog.
If Obama’s approval ratings were in the low 30s or worse instead of the 40s, that would be another story. The three presidents to fit this description — Carter in 1979, George W. Bush in 2007 and Harry Truman in 1951 — saw their parties take big defeats the next year. It would also be another matter if Obama’s approval rating were closer to 50 percent. Of the six presidents to have approval ratings in that range a year ahead of the election — Nixon, Clinton, Bush the younger, Truman in 1947 and Reagan in 1983 and 1987 (with Bush the elder running as his proxy in the latter case) — all six won.
As you go farther up the approval-ratings chart, you begin to see exceptions to the rule: George H. W. Bush’s approval ratings were still high in late 1991, but he lost. So were Bill Clinton’s in 1999 and Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1959, but their coattails were not strong enough to carry their vice presidents to victory. Thus, approval ratings have been a useful indicator but not an infallible one.
Last week’s column asserting that the president is unelectable has triggered strong responses. Democrats, in particular, seem to think my judgment is premature. It strikes them as ridiculous that anyone could make such a “bold prediction” so far in advance of the 2012 election. Hey, that’s what we do, as seasoned political professionals, as pollsters. But I must stress that I am not so much making a personal prediction as drawing an informed conclusion based on all the numbers available. I do this in each election cycle for other candidates, and it’s time to make the call on President Obama.
Whenever I have an incumbent client running for reelection, I insist on a viability study about a year out from the election — so, in the case of the presidential race, right about now. Anything that I do for my own, I should do for the opposition. So here goes. First, I look at the polling results from traditional “deserves reelection” questions, the gold standard of viability testing. The most recent nationwide public poll I could find was one conducted by Quinnipiac University early last month. It showed 42 percent saying the president deserves reelection while 54 percent say he doesn’t. While this reelect number by itself is not necessarily a doomsday figure, it’s the 54 percent on the con side that’s a killer. Most often, there is a large undecided percentage, but here it’s only 4 points. Voters have closed their minds — and the book on this president. It ensures that when Obama faces a Republican nominee, the undecided voters in early polling will eventually vote against an undeserved reelection.
The second numbers I peruse are perceptions of accomplishments. Eventually, Republicans will ask voters, “What has Barack Obama really accomplished?” and he must answer. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in his first year found that only 14 percent of all voters felt he had accomplished “a great deal ” during his initial nine months in office, his “salad days.” I cannot find evidence that the same question has been asked lately, but is there any chance that the result would be much different? In its Moving America Forward manifesto, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says Obama, with help from congressional Democrats, has five accomplishments: created private sector jobs, reduced debt, kept taxes low, passed a healthcare plan and reformed Wall Street. That’s the group’s best list. Do you think most Americans believe Obama has accomplished those things? Aside from passing a healthcare plan, he has done almost none of that, in the public’s mind. According to the latest AP polling, conducted in mid-October, the president’s average approval rating across those five areas is 42 percent. Obama brings no record of genuine accomplishment to his bid for reelection.
The third set of determinative data for an incumbent is perception of the direction of the nation or state. Everyone knows this is the biggest problem for Obama. The latest CBS/New York Times poll has the “right direction” at 21 percent. It hasn’t been above 30 percent since the early summer. Incumbents simply don’t get reelected when three-fourths of the electorate see things “seriously off” on the “wrong track.” Even if Obama’s approval ratings or likability were better, he could not overcome the negative sentiment that demands a change in direction. Americans are going to demand and get change next November.
So Obama fails on all counts. The numbers say that voters don’t think he deserves reelection, he has no meaningful accomplishments, and the nation is headed off in the wrong direction under his watch. He is simply not viable by any measure. That’s an empirically informed, hard-nosed judgment. This isn’t a movie or fantasy tale where a miracle occurs at the last moment to save the day. If Democrat campaign professionals don’t start acknowledging the same, and intervening, they risk Obama bringing down their entire ticket.