Beyond Job Approval

In the strangely large tribe of conservative political gabbers who think it’s important to insist again and again the Mitt Romney’s a sure bet to win in November, there are basically two kinds of people. From one kind, populated by people who don’t much pretend to be interested in serious analysis or empirical data or much of anything other than their own opinions, you’ll hear endless evocations of Obama’s “failed policies” or divisive character or incredible radicalism or crappy leadership style, all of which make it obvious that “the American people” (or at least the real “American people”) will dump him on November 6 and then engage in an orgy of self-congratulation, perhaps producing an immediate economic boom.

But there is a second kind of triumphalist gabber that deploys numbers and history and to some degree attempts to make an empirical case that “the American people,” or at least a plurality of them, are headed in the desired political direction. Within this category (we could call it the Dick Morris Group) are some folks who might as well be relying on sheer assertion, given their aggressive cherry-picking of data (usually Rasmussen surveys) and of electoral precedents (usually 1980 over and over). The other, more serious bunch (you might call it the Jay Cost Group) tends to fixate on one measurement of public opinion that blots out the sun and takes any other optic right off the table. Typically, that sole-significant-data-point measurement is presidential job approval.

That’s why I’m especially pleased by Nate Cohn’s post at TNR yesterday making the argument that presidential job approval is not some Philosopher’s Stone of electoral prognosticating:

Obama’s approval ratings are beneath 50 percent, which may mean that a majority of Americans are ready to send him packing. But his disapproval rating, which gets less attention, isn’t above 50 percent, either. And a majority of voters usually say they have a favorable opinion of Obama, unlike Romney. There’s no reason to put more stock in approval ratings than net-approval or favorability ratings; there’s a solid empirical relationship between all three data points and election outcomes. And once you take all these metrics into account, Obama’s position begins to look better. He possesses plausible routes to 50 percent (which might help explain Romney’s relentlessly negative strategy).

And although undecided voters are surely open to voting for Romney, these are precisely the cross-pressured white working-class voters targeted by the Obama campaign’s relentless effort to define Romney as a corporate raider, outsourcer, and tax evader. Recent polling suggests these attacks might be resonating, as Romney’s favorability ratings are at astonishingly low levels among undecided voters. Just as importantly, a majority of undecided voters already dislike Romney, and it’s hard to imagine too many of these voters casting ballots on his behalf.

I don’t guess there’s much question that “cross-pressured white working-class voters” are the target of Romney’s new effort to bring back the “welfare wedge” politics of the 1980s. But it’s by no means clear it will work so long as these voters don’t like or trust Romney.

In any event, obsessing over presidential job approval ratings, particularly this far out from Election Day, and ignoring every other bit of information, is not some self-evidently wise approach. The political dynamics affecting “the American people” are a bit more complex than that.

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.