The Obama Poll Plunge

At Salon, Steve Kornacki directly asks the question that’s rattling around the chattering classes today: what’s with Obama’s sudden plunge in the polls?

When a poll showing Barack Obama’s approval rating dropping four percent was released Monday morning, it seemed reasonable to dismiss the ensuing commotion as much ado about nothing.

After all, it was just one survey, and the president’s 46 percent approval score, while down from the 50 percent he registered in the same ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, was still basically consistent with his average approval number in other recent polls.

But when the day ended with another reputable survey finding an even more dramatic decline in Obama’s standing, it became harder to deny that something was up. A month ago, the CBS News/New York Times poll gave Obama a 50 percent approval rating – his highest mark in that poll since the spring of 2010 (not counting a one-time surge last May when Osama bin Laden was killed). But now just 41 percent approve of Obama’s job performance, with 47 percent rating it unfavorably.

That this would be happening immediately after a very good jobs report and amidst the continuing saga of the GOP nominating contest certainly seemed surprising. Could it be that Americans really do think gasoline prices are the most important issue on earth, and/or that the president has the power to get up every morning and set the pump prices at the local Chevron or QuickTrip (actually, a lot of them sorta do believe that)? And since Obama’s polling plunge extends to his head-to-head matchups with Republican challengers, do gas prices obliterate concerns about the GOP? I mean, do people think to themselves: You know, I’m so mad about gas prices jumping another ten cents this week that I’m ready to vote for Rick Santorum and build us a theocracy!

Fortunately, Kornacki offers one plausible alternative explanation that is mostly about poll timing:

Each survey began last Wednesday, with the ABC/WaPo calling voters through Saturday and CBS/NYT staying in the field through Sunday. It’s likely that neither fully measured the impact of the jobs report that came out last Friday morning, which provided the strongest evidence yet that a real recovery is afoot, even if the actual jobless rate remained at 8.3 percent. Plus, the middle of last week was filled with ominous news about Iran and the possibility of another Middle East war, highlighted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States.

It may be that each poll simply began reaching voters at the worst possible time for Obama, just as the news was dominated by critical commentary of his handling of a potential foreign policy crisis and before a fresh dose of positive economic data was added to the mix.

Kornacki also cites tracking poll data–more favorable to Obama at the moment–as supporting that hypothesis.

In the right-wing blogosphere, of course, Obama’s drop in the big media polls is being celebrated as decisively repudiating every pro-Obama media narrative of recent weeks, including the generally accepted (until now) feeling that Republicans really stepped into it by waging holy war on the administration’s contraception coverage mandate. As always with polls, we’ll know a lot more soon.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.