The Obama Approval Mystery

Frank Newport of Gallup reported yesterday on a bit of a mystery in Barack Obama’s approval ratings: he’s doing better than he should, based on how Americans feel about the economy. Newport’s speculation here; Jonathan Chait’s here; Andrew Sullivan’s here. Lots of plausible theories, and I have no idea which one or ones are correct.

But, hey, I might as well pile on with a completely different — and equally speculative — possibility. What all of the theories linked above have in common is they take Americans’ views of the economy as a given, and theorize why Obama’s approval rating is higher than that would predict. What if, however, what’s going no has to do with views about the economy? I’m pretty sure that this story fits the top-line numbers in the data.

Let me back up a bit. What Newport actually says is that Obama is outperforming a particular question: “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” Suppose that until recently, most Americans answered this question based on more or less the same information, and on the same basis. If things were going well in general for the nation, people said satisfied; if not, not. If that was the case, the satisfaction question would be correlated with approval ratings for weak partisans and true independents, but not for strong partisans. For them, the satisfaction answer would vary, while approval would not (that is, they would always approve of a same-party president, and never approve of an opposite-party president). Now, suppose that core GOP partisans during the Obama years no longer interpret the satisfaction question the way everyone else has, but instead are now automatic “dissatisfied” respondents as long as a Democrat is in the White House (either because the partisan news sources they listen to report the news that way, or because they interpret the question to include partisan politics, rather than economic conditions). The key is that their answer on the approval question would remain the same (extreme partisans, about a quarter of respondents on both sides, always give partisan answer on the approval question; that’s why it’s very rare for approval ratings to go above 75% or below 25%).

So what would have dropped out would be strong partisans, not from the president’s party, who in the past might have been “satisfied” with “the way things are going” but disapproved of the president’s job performance; now those same people would be dissatisfied, and disapproving.

Unfortunately, while Gallup does have the satisfaction question broken down by party for the last six months, they don’t seem to have it posted going back any farther (there’s a nice link at the bottom of that page to thirty years of the satisfaction question, but no crosstabs). The good news is that it would be very easy to test it, if one had the data.

Anyway, it’s totally speculative as I said, and I could easily be dead wrong, but it fits what we know as well as the other theories, so I figured I should mention it.

Update: and yet another possibility, from political scientist Amy Fried. Good stuff!

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.