Political Animal


May 07, 2012 12:53 PM Obama’s Personal Favorability “Cushion”

By Ed Kilgore

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.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Ron Byers on May 07, 2012 1:20 PM:

    Yesterday I had lunch with a bunch of NRA rank and file. They made the obligatory comments about Obama, then with a little proding, they all seemd to agree that they like Obama personally. They also agreed that they think he is a better candidate than Romney. One guy said grimly that the Republicans are nominating "about the only guy in America" Obama should beat. Another said he would probably be staying home in November. A third said he would probably vote for Obama. Interestingly, they all agreed that the gun manufacturers are silently rooting for Obama because the NRA is able to use him to gin up gun sales. It was a facinating lunch with a bunch of people who you would think are natural Obama opponents.

    Based on what I heard yesterday, I would suspect 70% personal favorability is about right or a little low. Considering the way the Republican attack machine has been churning for the last 3 years, you have to wonder if the Koch Brothers are getting their money's worth.

  • stormskies on May 07, 2012 1:46 PM:

    Anyone who 'believes' these manufactured polls to get the result that the pollsters want should turn themselves in for psychological treatment.

    It's pure corporate propaganda.

  • gdb on May 07, 2012 2:26 PM:

    "It certainly suggests that the door is open for him [BHO] to make a case not only that hes done a better job than undecided voters might initially think, but that his policies offer a better path forward than those of Mitt Romney". Or, as many independents and Progressives believe, BHO's not done a better job than Kilgore, Benen and other acolytes think, but BHO's policies are better than Romney's.

    The problem with re-electing BHO is that he really doesn't actively advocate or support effective and adequate policies on economics, health care, most anything. And until Dems elect someone who does, Dems and the country are in trouble.

  • Anonymous on May 07, 2012 7:52 PM:

    As a native Badger, I have been watching Mr. Obama's considerable lead over Mr. Romney being maintained in double digits for several weeks. On weekends I browse through the latest aggregate polls from RCP, et al, and there always seemed to be interesting sudden news.

    For example, the latest from North Carolina show Obama surging to a lead over Romney, which seems unusual at this early phase of the campaign. If this lead and an even larger edge in Virginia is maintained, that's all she wrote.

  • Reilly on May 08, 2012 7:35 AM:

    If the poll was run by the Politico and it's band of journOlisters, you can bet it is push poll propaganda.
    That said I believe the likeability argument is a sham. I will crawl over broken glass to defeat this incompetent chicago way fraud and his destructive policies. However in public I will clam up for fear of being called a racist because I don't enjoy chronic unemployment, record debt, and government run healthcare and auto companies.
    Obama is sitting on a whoopie cushion that will completely deflate next November in the privacy of a voting booth.

  • manapp99 on May 08, 2012 11:19 AM:

    Personal favorability ratings are great if your running for President on the West Wing but mean little when you want to hire someone to actually do the work of being President. Obama would make a lovely TV president. Great smile...wonderful script reader...very...well...likeable. Could go for a beer with him after the show.

  • Anonymous on May 08, 2012 10:38 PM:

    look, conspiracy lovers.
    Gallup tends to be slightly conservative. Obama's approval rating on Gallup polls have generally been lower than other polls.

    I dont know about politicos, but Gallup polls have been right on in the past.
    As of today Romney is leading over Obama on their poll.

    that's why both liberal and conservative quote gallup polls the most.