Why It Matters that Obama’s Approval Rating Is Falling

by John Sides on June 18, 2013 · 43 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics,Presidency,Public opinion

Despite ridiculous hype about a recent CNN poll that showed an exaggerated 8-point drop in Obama’s approval rating, there’s no doubt that his approval rating is about 4 points lower than it was in January 2013.  There’s lots of speculation as to why—see, e.g., Nate Silver.  But I want to say why it matters.  Justin Wolfers, for one, is dubious.  And a journalist also emailed me on this subject today.  [Update: That journalist was John Dickerson.  See his piece here.]

The decline matters for three reasons.

First, it matters for the 2014 election.  A simple model of House election outcomes constructed by political scientist Gary Jacobson shows that the share of seats controlled by the president’s party depends in part on presidential approval.  You can see some discussion of that in Jacobson’s post-mortem on the 2010 election.  Obviously, other factors matter too.  But a less popular president certainly provides headwinds for Democratic candidates.

Second, it matters for the 2016 election.  Of course, that’s a long way away, and a lot can happen between now and then.  But again, simple forecasting models show that, controlling for other factors, the incumbent party does better when the incumbent president is popular.  (See, for example, what Lynn Vavreck and I report in Chapter 2 of The Gamble.)  Approval appears to matter more when the incumbent president is running for reelection, but it still appears to matter even when that president is not running.  Let’s quantify that.  I estimated a model of presidential election outcomes from  1948-2012 that included change in gross domestic product over the first two quarters of the election year, presidential approval as of June of the election  year, an indicator for whether the incumbent is running, and the interaction of approval and incumbency.  This model suggests that when the incumbent is not running, a 7-point drop in approval is associated with a 1-point drop in the incumbent party candidate’s share of the major-party vote.  If I were Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic hopeful, I’d want Obama to be as popular as possible when he leaves office.  And if I were Obama and I wanted the legislative achievements of my presidency to last, I’d want a Democrat to win in 2016.

Third, it 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.

Of course, approval is just one factor among many.  And it may be less relevant now in this era of highly polarized parties.  In this article, Jon Bond, Richard Fleisher, and B. Dan Wood find that presidential approval seems to matter less for legislative success as partisanship in Congress increases.  One interpretation is that in highly partisan eras, presidents will get most of their party’s support but little of the opposing party’s support no matter how popular or unpopular there are.  So right now it may matter less whether Obama’s approval rating is 50% or 46%.

With those caveats noted, I still think that, on balance, presidential approval matters—for elections and for policy—even in a president’s second term.

{ 43 comments }

Nadia Hassan June 18, 2013 at 6:40 pm

I agree that Obama’s approval rating matters. But with respect to non-incumbent races, Erikson, Bafumi, and Wilson (2001) explored approval when Bartels and Zaller argued that the fundamentals were not that favorable to Gore in 2000. They found substantial effects of approval, and their averaged model parameters outdid Bartels and Zaller. But the advantage seemed to derive from incumbent races. Bartels and Zallers’ average fared similarly on the non-incumbent races excluding approval.

John Sides June 18, 2013 at 7:17 pm

The model that Lynn and I focus on in The Gamble draws on Bartels and Zaller in that it uses Bayesian model averaging, and resembles Erikson et al. in that it includes presidential approval. The main substantive difference between what Erikson et al. are doing and what I do in the post is that I interact presidential approval with incumbency. It would be interesting to see what Bayesian averaging would produce with such an interaction.

patient1 June 19, 2013 at 3:35 pm

or maybe it was just that everyone could tell that Gore was a lunatic

Ron Goodman June 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

And there would probably by a lot more American troops and Iraqi citizens still among the living had that “lunatic” been in the White House.

ErikK June 19, 2013 at 7:18 pm

And about 25 million Iraqis still living under the tyrannical thumb of Saddam and a very live Osama planning further attacks. You’re wasting your carbon credits crying about the 2000 election.

Andy June 19, 2013 at 8:37 pm

And a lot of dead Kurds.

Bladerunner June 19, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Amen to both. Dear Lord, are we the only three who see this?

shoemama June 20, 2013 at 12:07 am

Bladerunner: No, there are a lot of us who don’t buy the media’s assumptions. We just have a limited format for sharing it.

Todd Phillips June 19, 2013 at 2:01 am

President Obama and the Executive branch that he leads works on a zillion things. How odd it is that we ask Americans, who have no first-hand knowledge of 99.999% of what they do, what their opinion is. Sure, people can state their approval/disapproval, but it is 99.999% detached from reality. Where do people get their opinions from? Partisan prejudices primarily, and from the news media, who is not accountable to the public or to politicians. It is impossible for average people to have an informed opinion about how well President Obama is doing his job. This 99.999% nonsensical situation is why people are so fed up with what we call democracy–here and around the world. The public is too distant from government to participate in it directly.

Nadia Hassan June 19, 2013 at 5:34 am

The slope of the economy and “salient events” account for much of the variation in approval among swing voters. Partisans are disposed to approve of a President of their party and disapprove of Presidents of the opposite party. The scope of the effect is influenced by polarization. Carter had weaker approval ratings among Democrats than Obama did.

As for voters’ opinions being detached from reality, it depends on what considers “reality.” Voters seem swayed by actual events and the economy, so deeming them “detached from reality” per se is off the mark. Voters might not reach deeply considered judgments taking circumstances into consideration and evaluating the President against a series of well thought out benchmarks. Events and the economy are not figments of delusion, though media interpretation and coverage matters.

Approval is a revealing indicator. It captures meaningful public sentiment that influences elections, public officials, and governance as Prof. Sides points out. Finding out voters’ evaluation is getting valuable information, even if their judgments are misinformed or have a thin base for judgments. Of course, it is important to realize the limited basis of voters’ judgments, but they are not entirely divorced from reality.

Tom Miller June 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Wait. According to you, the average American doesn’t understand 99.999% of what the President does. These same Americans have the power to elect the President, but according to you, it is beyond the pale for them to have an opinion on how well his administration is doing? Are you saying the U.S. needs to ditch Presidential elections altogether and let our “intellectual superiors” chose a President for us? Did you arrive at the same conclusion when GWB was in the White House?

tcmuench June 19, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Your post is straight up Horse feathers

What June 19, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Todd, are you confused? It’s the other way around. The administration works on a vast number of things, and they don’t understand 99.9% of them, they just make crap up to justify absurd positions to support their preconceived notions. I doubt, for example, that anybody in the Department of Commerce could manage a Burger King, yet they love to promulgate regulations that impact those stores every day. To be blunt the average American is much smarter than you realize. One last thought, if the public is so distant from government then let’s get it out of D.C., and bring governance back to the state and local level.

R. Henry June 19, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Mr. Phillips,

I believe approval polling is essentially a popularity contest–whether the President is liked or disliked. The up and down of the number over time likely reflect his performance during a recent speech or how good he looked in a photograph with another world leader. I predict the next round of approval polls will be down because he flubbed a speech in N Ireland, and looked timid with Putin.

Lastly, I feel you are off base when you say “It is impossible for average people to have an informed opinion about how well President Obama is doing his job”. The past five years have yielded a wealth of data that “average people” can use to establish an informed opinion of POTUS job performance.

shoemama June 20, 2013 at 12:22 am

Now isn’t that the media’s fault? Their job is to inform us about all matters. Instead they bury their heads in the sand and only write/talk about what is politically “correct”. They are extremely biased and don’t try to hide that bias. They would rather blather on about Hollywood.
They WON”T report any thing negative about this administration unless they think they have to. (OR unless it effects them…IE the DoJ and hacking the AP’s emails.)
I have been around a long time and I remember when Government worked. The media reported on everything, EVEN IF THEY DISAGREED. They believed that everyone has a right to their opinion and worked hard at being NEUTRAL.

crawford June 19, 2013 at 9:54 am

Back to basics.

What exactly are such approval polls ‘measuring’ ?

What is the overall margin of error in the CNN poll, or any/all of these normal approval polls ?

Why pay any attention to them ?

The 3 “it matters” reasons focus mostly on Obama himself and his organization– what about the rest of the nation and average citizens ? Two-thirds of the American electorate did not vote for Obama in the last election.

Larry Bartels June 19, 2013 at 10:19 am

Find some sensible statistical model of monthly presidential approval. Check the coefficient on lagged approval. Raise it to the 17th power. Shouldn’t that tell you how much of this month’s decline will still be around for the midterm election? (And if the answer is “not much,” the inside-the-beltway effect–which I think is quite real–must be a sort of sunspot equilibrium rather than directly rational anticipation of electoral consequences from supporting or opposing the president.)

Theda Skocpol June 19, 2013 at 10:56 am

This “model” partly states the obvious — 2014 will be rough for Dems unless midterm turnout trends change, and we need no Sides model to tell us that. It partly offers nonsense — Obama can’t get stuff through Congress because of a popularity dip? Hello: have you checked out the GOP 2009ff lately, or realized that they control the House and have a veto in the Senate? And finally, the Sides “model” misleads about 2016. If HRC is the Dem nominee, the thrill factor and gender dynamics will separate her from Obama. This will not be Clinton-Gore.

I am a political scientist and I believe in models, but only to a point. They need demystification. They depend mechanically on past data to predict the future, and sometimes that just will not work. Also, the constant pol science/DC focus on predictions over substance averts our gaze from much that matters in politics, especially in a period like right now.

I know Sides can do better, and for those who do not know,caveat emptor whenever a “predictive model” pops up.

Theda Skocpol

Jan June 19, 2013 at 11:05 am

I still find it amazing that people give Barack Obama political advise.

He plays 3-D political chess, brings an assault weapon to a knife fight, has political geniuses who understand the ebb & flow of political campaigns brilliantly.

As a huge 2008 Clinton supporter, I remember Politician Obama in Michigan. Don’t give him any more public political advice until you remember what I mean. (D.I.R.T.Y. but basically successful.)

I recall Rasmussen had Obama at about 44% right before he won his second term … at 53%.

I still remember the Obama Team saying — about 24 hours before Karl Rove called Ohio for Mitt Romney — that someone was LYING, and that we would ALL find out who on Nov 6. Guess who was lying? These polls are nothing. These polls represent the political capital OBAMA is willing to spend on setting up for 2014.

2014: Obama’s agenda matches that of the American people. If the GOP obstruct, and I believe they will, he will run against them as Obstructionists.

2014: Campaign will center on Rightwing “small govt” Tea Party loudmouths abusing taxpayers via their IRS 501c4 Social Welfare tax-exempt political accounts. Watch.
Right now, I’m watching the 2008/2012 Winning Anaconda circle the Wittle Puddy Tat at Fox News.

2016: I don’t think Hillary Clinton will ever campaign against fellow Democrats again. But if the Democrats support her candidacy in 2016, she will be unbeatable regardless of how Obama has done as POTUS. (p.s. I’m rooting for the doubly historic H.Clinton/J.Biden vs. ??? Jeb Bush/Quayle’s Kid??? LOL!)

Ron Binns June 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Approval ratings don’t always correlate with elections, so that 44%/53% disparity may not be because of any type of political spinning, malpractice, or lying. I know of more than one person who voted for Obama even as they did not approve of his job performance; they all liked Romney’s positions even less (and they were not willing for vote for any of the other choices available). And sometimes even politicians with favorable ratings get voted out of office; when they were defeated, Ann Richards (TX gov), Bob Ehrlich (MD gov), and Scott Brown (MA senator) all had approval rating of over 50%, but they drew opponents whom the electorate liked more.

Matt June 19, 2013 at 4:17 pm

“I recall Rasmussen had Obama at about 44% right before he won his second term … at 53%. ”

Apparently your recall is incorrect. The lowest that Rasmussen had Obama’s approval in the weeks before the election was 47% (last on 10/28) and the three polls covering election day had Obama at 52%, 52%, and 51% (note that Rasmussen does three day polling with a day’s delay in reporting, so their “daily” polls actually cover three days; this means that the 11/7, 11/8, and 11/9 polls included responses from 11/6). Obama hadn’t been below 47% since mid-August and was last at 44% on August 3rd (Obama was also at 43% on August 11th).

Source: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/obama_administration/obama_approval_index_history

It’s also worth noting that Obama didn’t win 53% of the vote. Romney had 47%, but Obama only had 51.07% of the vote. Almost 2% of voters voted for someone else. Counting just the votes for the two of them puts Obama at a hair under 52% of the vote — pretty much what Rasmussen reported as Obama’s approval rating on 11/7 for the period 11/4-11/6.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2012

m power June 19, 2013 at 7:16 pm

“2014: Obama’s agenda matches that of the American people.”

Let’s see…
starting another ME war.
Guantanamo still open (WH doesn’t need congress to close Gitmo -that’s a popular myth)
NSA/NDAA/Patriot Act/domestic drone program
ObamaCare disaster will be beyond obvious by 2014
zero banking/financial markets reform (and zero indictments/prosecutions)
record low labor market participation
record high dependency/food stamps, etc.

Oh yeah, that Obummer agenda is just what America was “hoping” for…!!
Keep choosing the ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ and drinking that Kool-Aid!!

shoemama June 20, 2013 at 12:42 am

The 2012 polls didn’t take fraud or intimidation (Black Panthers) into account.
Hopefully, by the time 2016 rolls around Obama, Holder and Hillary will have been exposed for Benghazi, the doctored talking points (LIES), IRS targeting scandal, Fast and Furious debacle, targeting AP and Rosen emails.
This administration is so rank. All their lies should sink it. We’ll see how much the media will continue to shield it.

Whitey Ford June 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm

It’s difficult to approve of a socialist con man who is “fundamentally transforming” my beautiful country into a 3rd rate Grecian nanny police state. Obungler’s supporters will one day be apologizingnwhen its all too late, and I won’t accept. Fools.

sub June 19, 2013 at 2:49 pm

regrettably, i agree. this modern day icarus is essentially what was warned of; an arrogant, insular, self-impressed showman. more disturbingly, he seems to be disconnected from reality in some of the things he says; both on the ground, and with respect to utterances’ intersection with his own past statements, etc. barack, just cause you say it in that booming oratory doesn’t make it true. it just makes it loud, and impressive to people that don’t know anything.

shoemama June 20, 2013 at 12:45 am

I agree and it is so mind boggling to watch!

Larry June 19, 2013 at 3:21 pm

The drop in approval ratings for Obama matters only because some WANT it to matter.

How come when Bush Jr. had approval ratings in the basement there were few articles about how HIS horrendous lack of approval? Those low, low numbers were mostly ignored by the mainstream media who so wrongly supported two (count them two!) unnecessary, disastrous, budget busting wars.

Obama bashers are desperate to find something, anything will do, to bash him with. When his approval rating is sky high in comparison to Bush nothing much is said about that.

Mystery solved.

Ann June 19, 2013 at 3:32 pm

This comment is relevant, if you bother to read it.

Almost all this bother and concern about politics will basically disappear by the end of summer 2013.

Why? The same president so many disparage is working with China, Russia, and dozens of other nations to announce the reality of Planet X (aka Nibiru).

Yes: YOU don’t know about the truth of Planet X. Right? You who are so together, and with it, and intelligent are clueless about the thing that really matters the most: Planet X!

Go ahead and scoff, I don’t care. I have seen Nibiru with my own eyes several times so I am sure the reality of Planet X in the inner solar system since 2003 is covered up.

The biggest cover up in history is Planet X and Obama is going to end it. Won’t that prove Obama is a good guy and not the demon so many want to pretend?

So when Obama does announce Nibiru is real and has b een covered up since 1983 at the direction of Reagan (National Security Directive don’t you know) all the doubters, deniers and naysayers who think they are oh so with it and knowledgeable about everything that matters will be the ones laughed at, not moi.

We shall see.

E June 19, 2013 at 4:51 pm

wtf are you talking about? lol

JohnSmart June 20, 2013 at 12:48 am

I love this comment more than any comment on any site ever.

Just Bill June 19, 2013 at 4:53 pm

The RealClearPolitics poll is an aggregrate of a number of polls and therefore less prone to wild swings. According to RCP, Obama’s approval has fallen since January by at least 7 points, while his disapproval numbers have risen by that amount, creating a 14 point reversal and Obama is now upside down in public opinion.

To say that Obama’s approval is “about 4 points lower than it was in January 2013″ is pure fiction.

Bill June 19, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Try this experiment. Look down you block or just look at your co-workers. How many can name a Surpreme Court Judge or their local congressman? I work with MBA’s and bet only half could. If the MSM was JUST neutral we would be living under a limited government and our elected representatives would be forced to abide by the Costitution, the way our founders envisioned. President Obama’s falling approval ratings are due to the fact that the MSM was FORCED to cover the lates scandals because the lies were just too blatant. They used to be able to get away with stories like Dan Rather’s but the internet is a problem. They are still extremely powerful but there is a crack

Rushbabe June 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Doesn’t really matter much… He has been re-elected by the low information voters.

And now he wants 40 MILLION newly formed democrap voters….. :) Yes, its not the 11 million they are trying to sell you, its more like 40 MILLION NEW DEM VOTERS..

RickG June 19, 2013 at 6:01 pm

And the reason we are concerned that the most criminal administration in history may be in trouble in the next election is…..? Is the IRS not available to make certain of a win……,again? Surely the stake out, of the American people (you know, the real terrorists), will yield more useful demographics. Holder has security at the polls covered, right? No ID’s, right?

Piece of cake.

Shauna June 19, 2013 at 7:17 pm

This reads like a dog whistle to the media to get back on the band wagon and keep covering up the corruption.

Please media just play it straight and let the chips fall. You are destroying this government by preventing needed oversight!!!

Tell the people about the most corrupt government we have ever had. Please.

theturd June 24, 2013 at 9:40 am

I noticed that too. Perhaps the Obama administration is threatening news outlets once again.

Ted Peters June 19, 2013 at 9:42 pm

If it’s falling now… it’s only going to get worse after the Obamacare trainwreck hits the country… then worse as Assad begins to cleanse the Sunni’s, who flee enmasse to Jordan, which falls apart as a result… and then plunges when his own party deserts him as a lame duck. The king is dead… long live the king.

gmason June 19, 2013 at 9:55 pm

You want to know what really matters? I would say it is the fact that the IRS is using the most unaccountable division of the federal government to oppress political opponents, the NSA is spying on each and every American, and we still have no accountability, indeed don’t even know what the President was doing the or why we were lied to about the night four Americans were killed in Benghazi.
But what are reporters obsessed about? The President’s approval rating. What the hell is wrong with you people? When did you decide to utterly abdicate your duty to the American public?
Your job – because you seem to have forgotten – is to provide information to the American people. To investigate matters which administrations would like to keep hidden.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” – George Orwell

Blackrepublican June 19, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Once everyone is laid off or shifted to part-time for Obamacare, Obama will be half as popular as Bush. Everyone saying Hillary already won sounds familiar, like in 2008. No way will the dims even let her win the nomination. Some idiot like Deveal Patrick will win the nom, democrats are done with white people-everyone on their side says it. The Republicans running Rubio will win in a landslide.

theturd June 24, 2013 at 9:38 am

I thought Hillary had some sort of brain damage. Is she fit to run?

JohnSmart June 20, 2013 at 1:16 am

Of course it matters that BHO’s numbers are down. But it’s way too early to speculate on the midterms. Next Spring we’ll be able to get an inkling… not before…too much can happen. That said if nothing much does happen between now and then all the GOP has to do is run against Pelosi. Even if Obamacare somehow goes swimmingly the idea of Pelosi back as speaker will drive moderates and conservatives to the polls to vote GOP. Add in the Fed ending the pumping and its probable effect on the economy – the GOP will be fine even if Obama gets through the current scandals relatively unscathed.

I’ll also add this: Once again the Left is utterly misreading the newly revived Tea Party by mocking and insulting while missing the powerful subtext. Americans hate government even while they cash government checks. Distrusting government is in our DNA – everyone from hippies in humbolt county, CA, to tight wad New Englanders, to Nascar Dads in Georgia distrust government on some level. The TP simply states this distrust forthrightly. This didn’t play in the General because the choice was 2 people and the incumbent seemed like a better bet to a small majority. In a midterm general distrust plays more powerfully because voters are not choosing one President, they tend to be expressing an opinion about the government and are often keeping the executive in line. Distrusting the federal government is truly and deeply American. The Left doesn’t get this in the era of Obama mostly because they are in love with the idea of Obama and can’t abide that he’s mostly a fraud. But many people voted for Obama who were not delusional about him they just figured he was the better choice. Those, the non-deluded, will happily ditch him again in 2014, like they did in 2010. Or just not show up. Americans get that the government has gone haywire of late. I bet – though I’m not certain as it is too early – that the tea party “theme” of reign in the government will win the day in 2014 even as the Tea Party itself is called all sorts of names in the media and on the insulated self involved Left.

Finally, Obama’s numbers are down because all 2nd terms in the modern era are rough. Also, he’s weirdly disconnected. What an odd man he is. He seems to like having the job, but not doing the job. His numbers are not WORSE because the GOP is so often idiotic.

Then again the Dems have planet X…which might save the day.

IAMBRO June 24, 2013 at 9:34 am

We need a stronger street smart ghetto boy than Obama, to make America repected and feared once more.

theturd June 24, 2013 at 9:36 am

Obama shall be remembered as a “fart in the wind.”

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