On its face, the idea that an incumbent officeholder can be reelected when more Americans disapprove of his or her job performance than approve seems unlikely. After all, if voters don't like the job you're doing, why would they give you the chance to keep doing it?
But President Obama, whose job-approval ratings are mired well south of 50 percent, has an important factor breaking his way as he seeks another term: Americans still overwhelmingly like the guy.
There is a partial correlation, pollsters say, between a politician's job-approval ratings and favorability ratings. 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.
Polling consistently shows that the majority of Americans view Obama favorably, even while they increasingly disagree with his job performance. There is a nuance to voter sentiment, pollsters say, one that provides Obama with a path to reelection. But the disconnect between the two numbers, if it ever shrinks, could also become a leading indicator that the president's chances for a second term are headed south.
"I consistently find in focus groups that swing voters like Obama personally. But they feel let down by his policies. They believe he is working hard, but going in the wrong direction," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies. Obama "is in danger, though, of becoming Jimmy Carter: Likeable, but unable to lead the country out of difficult times."
Americans are a forgiving people. Even when a voter's opinion of the president's job performance is sour, if that voter views the president favorably on a personal level, their opinion of his job-performance number can rise.
Bill Clinton offered a clear example; in 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 approval 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.
Throughout Clinton's term, his personal-favorability rating dropped below 50 percent only twice in Pew surveys. Even at the height of the impeachment debate, after Clinton had admitted to an affair, his approval ratings stayed in the high 50s. So long as Americans liked Clinton personally, his approval rating could rebound.
A high personal-favorability rating can bolster a lousy job-approval rating. But once the personal rating falls, rehabilitating a president's professional image becomes much more difficult. Voters can decide they're simply done rooting for a president to succeed, as they did with Clinton's successor.
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.
A president's job approval ratings are far more dynamic than his personal favorable ratings, University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin said. That seems to suggest that personal feelings about an incumbent erode much more slowly than feelings about their job performance -- and are that much harder to rebuild. Bush's high favorable ratings after September 11th, and his subsequent lows after Hurricane Katrina, were slower to develop than his job approval zeniths and nadirs.
Obama's job-approval rating has followed the same track during his first term as Bush's did during the second term. His approval rating has hit the 50 percent mark in Pew surveys just four times since December 2009—and three of those times came within a month after Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Similarly, Obama's approval rating last hit the 50 percent mark in Gallup's daily tracking poll on June 6; about 10 weeks later, fewer than 40 percent of Americans view Obama favorably, Gallup has found.
For the moment, Obama's personal-favorability ratings have not followed the same downward trajectory. The most recent ratings from Gallup show 52 percent of Americans viewed Obama favorably in late April. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducts research for Democracy Corps, asks the question much differently, but an early August study pegs Obama's favorability, rated as a temperature measure, as much warmer than either Republicans or Democrats.
"The president's job approval is dropping a good deal, whereas his personal ratings are not to anywhere near that extent," said Peter Brown, a pollster at Quinnipiac University. "If he were to become personally unpopular to the degree his policies are unpopular, he would have a very difficult time getting reelected. And it's hard to see how his personal numbers would rise without his job approval rising."
Obama's high personal-favorability ratings show swing voters are rooting for him to succeed, while his low job-performance rating demonstrates they don't like where he's going so far. If Obama's favorability ratings start sinking to match his approval numbers, it may be a sign that those critical independent voters have washed their hands of his presidency.
The article, "President Obama's Tipping Point," first appeared in the National Journal.