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Friday, September 16, 2011

(Mainly) Bad Numbers for POTUS

The Field Poll reports on a September survey of California:
With Californians, by a greater than three to one margin, saying the country is now seriously off on the wrong track, President Barack Obama’s standing with voters has declined. The current proportion approving of his performance (46%) is now only slightly greater than the proportion disapproving (44%), a big change from three months ago when Californians approved of the job he was doing 54% to 37%. In addition, those who are inclined to reelect Obama outnumber those not inclined by just five points (49% to 44%).

For the first time since Obama assumed office, fewer than half of California voters (46%) approve of his overall performance as President. In 2009, during the first year of his presidency, 60% or more California voters held a favorable view of the job Obama was doing. Throughout 2010 and the first half of 2011, Obama’s ratings with the public remained quite positive. Three months ago more approved than disapproved by a 54% to 37% margin. However, the proportion viewing him in a negative light is on the rise, with nearly as many disapproving (44%) as approving (46%).
POTUS, however, can take some comfort from trial heats, as another Field release explains:
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads Texas Governor Rick Perry among Republican voters in the battle for California’s 172 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The latest Field Poll finds Romney preferred by 28% of registered Republicans in this state, while Perry is the choice of 20%. No other Republican contender receives more than 8% of GOP voter preferences.

However, when the two leading GOP presidential candidates are paired against Democratic incumbent Barack Obama in general election trial heats, the President leads both by double-digit margins. Against Romney, Obama's lead is thirteen points – 51% to 38%. When paired against Perry, the President leads by nineteen points (54% to 35%).
Then again, early trial-heat polls have limited value, as Kathleen Frankovic wrote a few years back:
Potential voters often choose candidates they are familiar with. Many announced candidates are simply unknown quantities. Even after his years in the Senate and a previous presidential run, 55 percent of Americans interviewed in an April Gallup poll still could not say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Delaware Democratic Sen. Joe Biden. The earliest polls say more about name recognition than likely votes.
It's important to be cautious, however, in interpreting the President's standing in these early trial heat polls. The fact that Obama is leading now doesn't tell us much about how he would fare against Romney or Perry in November. Research by the political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson finds that general election trial heats have very limited predictive power until later in the campaign (gated). We are currently 419 days away from the 2012 election...

The direction of the economy is a better indicator of how the election is likely to turn out (as well as Obama's approval ratings, of course, which are heavily influenced by the economy). As Wlezien and Erikson show, the campaign brings economic factors into focus for voters, which in turn causes trial heats to come into closer alignment with the eventual outcome as the election draws near.
So back to the economy. As consultant Steve Lombardo writes at The Huffington Post, the signs are not good for POTUS:
This is all about the perceptions of the economy and nothing else matters. Extreme comment you say? Well, think of it this way: on May 1, the President announced to a stunned and grateful nation that a Navy Seal team had just taken out Osama Bin Laden. Most public polls showed an immediate bump of 4 to 8 points in the President's approval rating. This lasted less than two weeks. Obama had done something Bush could not achieve over seven long years, and voters only gave him a modest and short-lived bounce. Obama's long, slow decline in approval appears to be decoupled from the major news events of his presidency. Other than the aforementioned successful raid which killed Osama bin Laden, non-economic events appear to have no lasting impact on voter perceptions of Obama. This is equally true of negative events: 66 soldiers died in Afghanistan last month--the highest monthly toll ever in that war--and there was barely a blip. Other events that Democrats would consider to be the signature achievements of Obama's presidency, such as the passage of the stimulus and health care reform legislation, had little or no lasting impact on Obama's approval rating. Simply put, we rather doubt that there is anything the President can do or say which will change perceptions of his Presidency. Obama needs either substantive improvement on the economy or a major mistake by his GOP rival to win 14 months from now.
Thirty-nine percent of Americans in September name unemployment or jobs as the most important problem facing the country, up from 29% in August. Unemployment has now passed "the economy" as the most frequently mentioned issue. In the month since the passage of debt ceiling legislation, concerns about the federal budget deficit have eased, while the percentage citing dissatisfaction with government as the top problem has held steady at 14%.

The September poll also asked Americans to say which party they thought would do a better job of handling whichever problem they named as most important. More Americans chose the Republican Party (44%) than the Democratic Party (37%) as better able to handle that problem.

The current seven-point spread is one of the bigger Republican advantages on this question, which Gallup has asked periodically since 1956. It is the largest GOP advantage since January 1995, when Republicans had a 10-point edge.At that time, crime was the top overall problem according to Americans. The all-time-high Republican advantage was 19 points in January 1981, just after Ronald Reagan took office, when the economy was the most important problem.

Among those in the current poll who cite unemployment as the biggest problem facing the U.S., 42% say the Republican Party is better able to deal with it and 40% say the Democratic Party. Among those saying the economy in general is the top problem, the Republicans have a wider advantage, 57% to 31%.
At CNN, James Carville sums up:
People often ask me what advice I would give the White House about various things. Today I was mulling over election results from New York and Nevada while thinking about that very question. What should the White House do now? One word came to mind: Panic.