Disapproval Isn’t Defection

So today’s big news from the world of public opinion surveys is a new CNN/ORC poll that shows the president’s job approval rating dropping from 53% in May to 45% in June. The slide seems to have occurred to some extent in nearly every measurement of Obama’s leadership, including his management of the economy (which has been tangibly improving) and his handling of “illegal immigration” (where his views have been very close to public opinion for a long time).

The purveyors of this poll did not vouchsafe us, so far at least, access to the internals that might show how the approval “slide” broke out by partisan, ideological or demographic category, with one big exception: an 18% drop in job approval from Americans under thirty.

It’s a shame CNN/ORC didn’t supply similar numbers for under-30s on individual issues. Are they frustrated with the slow recovery of the economy? Are they anxious about Syria? Or, as one might expect, are the “scandals” involving terrorism-related surveillance the main problem?

Funny thing is: steady majorities overall support the surveillance activities that have been in the news, and also support prosecution of Edward Snowden.

The closest thing to a hint we have about the relationship of the surveillance issues to Obama’s job approval numbers is in the answers to this question:

Do you think the Obama administration has gone too far, has been about right, or has not gone far enough in restricting people’s civil liberties in order to fight terrorism?

43% answered “too far,” 38% “about right,” and 17% “not enough.” CNN/ORC usefully compares these number to an identical question asked during the Bush administration, which received quite similar answers (other than a higher number for “not far enough.”).

It seems pretty likely that Obama’s approval rating is getting hit from left and right–from people who disliked the surveillance policies under Bush as well, who when combined with people who dislike everything Obama does, makes up a significant majority.

That’s bad for the president, and is a reminder that hewing close to the ideological center on some issues doesn’t always translate into popularity for this president since it sacrifices support from the Left while opposition from the Right would persist even if Obama tried to channel Dick Cheney.

But it’s not necessarily good for Republicans, since a significant share of those who are newly expressing disapproval of the president might well object even more to Republican policies.

So aside from the fact that this is a single poll taken 17 months before the midterm elections, it’s important to remember that disapproval isn’t the same thing as defection, which should be kept in mind before anyone translates Obama’s disapproval ratings into some putative GOP landslide in 2014.

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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.