There are a couple of big polls (one the Battleground Poll sponsored by Politico and George Washington University, the other, which only covers 12 “swing states,” from Gallup/USA Today) out today showing the presidential contest as a dead heat. Romney’s gains from previous polls by these outfits are mostly predictable, and reflect the consolidation of Republican voters behind their “presumptive nominee.”
There’s one wrinkle in the Battleground Poll that bears a bit more scrutiny, however: Obama’s unusually high “personal favorability” ratings (70% approve of him “as a person,” 56% strongly). These numbers are probably higher than in similar “favorability” measurements precisely because the poll explicitly dissociates the sentiment from job approval and thus may elicit positive feelings; Romney scores a pretty impressive 56% “favorable” in the same poll, though only 29% approve of him “strongly.”
So what’s the relationship between personal favoriability, job approval, and voting preferences? Last August Reid Wilson of National Journal explored this question at a time when Obama’s job approval rating looked to be cratering, and came up with a pretty persuasive answer:
Favorability ratings generally represent a ceiling, above which job-approval ratings do not rise. And poor job-approval ratings, over the long term, can prove a drag on an incumbent’s favorability ratings. A short-term drop in approval ratings doesn’t portend a corresponding drop in personal favorability—but when favorable numbers begin to descend, it’s an ominous sign for anyone planning to run for another term.
Wilson contrasts Bill Clinton in his first term with George W. Bush in his second:
[I]n 1994, Clinton’s approval rating dropped to a low of 38 percent, as measured by the Pew Research Center. Clinton endured a period, from March 1994 to October 1995, during which his approval rating hit 50 percent only once. And yet, during that same period, his favorability rating stayed strong, starting around 58 percent and ending, after only a single dip below the 50 percent mark, at 56 percent in January 1996. Beginning with that January poll, Clinton’s approval rating rebounded; by November, when he asked voters for a second term, his job-approval rate stood at 57 percent….
A string of bad news and federal government failures—starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the spiraling chaos of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and political problems in Washington—sent George W. Bush’s job-performance rating plummeting. His performance rating hit 50 percent in January 2005, just after he was reelected, and never reached the halfway mark again. The number of Americans who disapproved of his performance hit 52 percent in early September 2005, just after Katrina; it didn’t fall below 52 percent for the rest of his tenure.
Americans began to view Bush as personally unfavorable at about the same time. A July 2005 Pew survey showed 51 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of the president. By late October, that number had sunk to 46 percent, then stayed in the high 30s for most of the rest of his term. Voters had had enough; Bush’s job-approval rating led the way down, and once the favorable ratings followed, there was no way to recover politically.
So by either example, the fact that Obama’s personal favorability is holding up so well six months from election day is a positive sign for him–an indication, as Wilson puts it, that swing voters “are rooting for him to succeed.” It certainly suggests that the door is open for him to make a case not only that he’s done a better job than undecided voters might initially think, but that his policies offer a better path forward than those of Mitt Romney, particularly after a highly polarizing general election campaign that tends to make it clear it’s a real, and stark, choice.