Ezra Klein poses a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times before at the end of a nice post earlier this week:

Tucked inside Abramowitz’s take is an interesting structural prediction about American politics: As party polarization increases and the persuadable middle dwindles, scandals and gaffes will become less meaningful as they’ll only be able to convince those who want to be convinced. It’s not clear that the IRS mess, Benghazi, or the DoJ/AP issue will rise to the level of being a useful test of this thesis. But something will.

It’s tempting to believe that polarization is producing presidential approval results which are little more than reflections of partisanship. Barack Obama’s Gallup approval history would seem to suggest that might be happening. His best rating of 69% ranks 10th best of the 12 presidents in the Gallup era, and is really in a tie for last with Nixon (67%), Reagan (68%), and perhaps Ford (71%). Everyone else had higher highs. And yet, at least to date, Obama’s lowest point of 38% approval beats everyone but Ike and Kennedy. Obama’s overall average to date is 49%; since the beginning of 2012, his weekly Gallup number has ranged higher than 55% and lower than 45% only once in each direction, and overall, outside of a brief honeymoon in 2009, he’s been in that range almost his entire presidency.

And yet…there’s no reason to believe that polarization has advanced significantly in the last fifteen years, but George W. Bush’s approval ratings were all over the place. Bush holds the highest spike in the history of Gallup, hitting a soaring 90%. And when he crashed, Bush bottomed out at 25%, lower than everyone but Truman and Nixon. Bush’s first term was, overall, fourth-highest (and also fourth farthest from 50%); his second term is tied for second-lowest (and also tied for second farthest from 50%).

Conclusion? Most likely, Obama’s approval ratings have stayed in a narrow range mainly because there really haven’t been that many events, and those that have happened have roughly balanced out. The economy has mostly been the same from 2010 on — recovering, but not recovering enough to get people thinking “prosperity.” The same, really, with foreign affairs; with the exception of the bin Laden killing, the administration can’t really offer peace, but also isn’t running up the level of policy disaster that occurred during the Bush presidency…good news (out of Iraq! overall casualties in Afghanistan way down!) seem to be balanced by bad (Benghazi — the real event, not the phony scandal; the Boston bombing; various high-profile attacks in Afghanistan).

Granted, it could be that it’s harder for events now to move the needle, but the reaction to events during the Bush administration just makes me very skeptical of that.

[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.