Barack Obama Poll Numbers and the Midterm Elections
by Bob Brigham, Sun Jan 03, 2010 at 05:21:28 PM EST
Over at Pollster, President Barack Obama is starting the new year with a collective average job approval that is a net negative (48.1% disapprove to 48.0% approve). If you filter out Rassmussen and internet polls, Obama climbes to 50.4% approval (see Nate Silver on the Rassmussen dustup).
Some of the "clap louder" crowd have recently taken to arguing that Obama's 80% approval ratings among Democrats means that Obama doesn't have a base problem. But is looking at approval among all Democrats an adequate way to measure Obama's "base" support? The following numbers put some context around how many Democrats actually constitute the base:
- 69,456,897 - 2008 National Vote for Barack Obama
- 42,082,311 - 2006 National Vote for House Democrats
- 13,000,000 - OFA email list
- 3,950,000 - Total Obama contributors
- 1,500,000 - Total Obama volunteers
The most basic definition for "base" is the people who help you win elections. But there are lots of ways to quantify that. If by "base" you mean "email list total" then 18% of the people who voted for Obama are part of the base. If you mean contributors, then less than 6% of those who voted for Obama are part of the base. If you mean volunteers, it drops down to just over 2%.
In short, the Obama "base" is a very small percentage of the national political landscape and there is little reason to believe that national polls of Democrats represent the base. For instance, even if every single person on Obama's email list was a Democrat, every single one could disapprove of Obama according to the poll numbers Administration supporters are citing as showing Obama is in good shape.
"Base" isn't a measure of political breadth, but of political depth.
So is Obama in good shape? And is what is good for Obama's poll numbers also good for Democrats heading into the midterms?
Is Obama in good shape?
Professor Drew Westen, in a must read piece, articulated how the same problems that are hurting Obama with the base are what is hurting with independents. A perfect political storm heading into the midterms.
Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.
What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.
What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.
The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It's that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky "leftists." I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.
While Obama has been failing inside the White House, the much touted "game-changer" of Organizing for America has been failing inside the DNC. Micah Sifry explained:
In The Audacity to Win, Plouffe writes often of an "enthusiasm gap" that he saw between Obama's supporters and the other Democratic candidates, notably Clinton. Back then, there was plenty of evidence to support Plouffe's claim: Obama was surging on all the online social networks, his videos were being shared and viewed in huge numbers, and the buzz was everywhere. We certainly wrote about it often here on techPresident. Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it's no longer in Obama's favor. That's because you can't order volunteers to do anything--you have to motivate them, and Obama's compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating. The returns OFA is getting on email blasts appear to be dropping significantly, for example. "“People are frustrated because we have done our part,” one frustrated Florida Obama activist told the Politico. “We put these people in the position to make change and they’re not doing it.” (See also this petition from 400 former Obama staffers.) DC insiders may blame the fickle media, or the ugliness of the cable/blog chatter, or the singleminded Republican opposition, for the new enthusiasm gap. These are all certainly factors. But I suspect that when the full history of Obama's presidency is written, scholars may decide that his team's failure to devote more attention to reinventing the bully pulpit in the digital age, and to carrying over more of the campaign's grassroots energy, may turn out to be pivotal to evaluations of Obama's success, or failure, as president.
At this point, it is hard to claim Obama has had a good first year. As Westin noted, "it would be hard to name a single thing President Obama has done domestically that any other Democrat wouldn't have done if he or she were president following George W. Bush (e.g., signing the children's health insurance bill that Congress is about to gut to pay for worse care for kids under the health insurance exchange, if it ever happens), and there's a lot he hasn't done that every other Democrat who ran for president would have done." And as Sifry made clear in a follow up piece, Obama could have done so much more.)
Extending beyond "the base" (no matter how you want to quantify it), there are real worries of an enthusiasm gap among the people who surged to the polls to elect Obama and take back congress. This isn't what you want to see:
In the best evidence to date that the Democratic leadership is going to have to do an immense amount of outreach to their base in 2010, the highest percentage of Democrats to date (45%) indicated this week that they are either unlikely to vote, or certain not to vote. The number indicating a likelihood to vote has held reasonably steady (at 54%) since Daily Kos started polling on this question in late November.
The GOP fervor for voting has receded ever so slightly, but still towers over the Democrats in terms of voter intensity. The spread for the GOP stands at 75% likely/21% unlikely.
In campaigns, you solidify your base for the resources to turn out the vote. If the base is demoralized and GOTV is made more difficult by a large enthusiasm gap, then Democrats are in serious trouble.
Is what is good for Obama's poll numbers also good for Democrats heading into the midterms?
If the slight uptick in Obama's poll numbers continues, is it good news for Democrats? Right now, the conventional wisdom is that what is good for Obama is good for Democrats, as Time recently encapsulated:
With the President's approval rating now dipping below 50% in most polls, Democratic pollsters have begun to sound the alarm. In a recent public memo, Celinda Lake, of Lake Research Partners, pointed to a sobering statistic: Presidents with approval ratings below 50% have lost an average of 41 House seats in mid-term elections. (Democrats currently have an 81-seat advantage in the House, so Republicans could gain control of the chamber with a 41-seat pick-up in 2010.)
Yet it remains to be seen if rising Obama poll numbers would be a good thing for Democrats in the midterms.
If Obama were leading the Democratic Party in accomplishing good things that made voters' lives better, an increase in Obama numbers could be seen as a sign that Obama could have coattails, that his popularity would bring Democrats along for the ride.
Unfortunately, Obama seems to be pursuing a different strategy. Instead of leading Democrats, Obama is triangulating against the Democratic base. This became clear in the administration's failure on health care turning into attacks on the left.
For Obama, health care seems to be following a model of raising the president's approval at the expense of depressing the base during the midterms. Everyone on the ballot this fall with a 'D' after their name should be alarmed by this:
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been telling Democrats a win on the health issue will reverse the slide in public opinion, just as passage of another controversial proposal, the North American Free Trade Agreement, lifted President Bill Clinton in the polls.
This is triangulation at it's worst. This is personal gain at the expense of the party.
There is a reason Obama campaigned on the public option and against mandates, instead of vice-versa. Same with his pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class. Yet now, instead of Democrats being able to campaign on the popular public option, Democrats will have to play defense as to why they raised taxes on middle class health care plans while turning the IRS into the bagman for some of the most hated companies in America.
In conclusion, Obama isn't in good shape. Halfway through the midterms, Obama as coach is giving a lockroom pep talk that is little more than "we couldn't have done any better in the first half because our team is so bad." And his strategy in the second half appears to be focused on making himself look good even if it is at the expense of the rest of the team. Which means even if he does start looking better in the polls, it might not be good news for Democrats in 2010.