In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: gauging the usefulness of presidential approval ratings. This is The Two Minute Drill for March 11, 2016.
Gallup recently reported that President Obama’s approval rating reached its highest level in three years: “Obama’s current 50% weekly average exceeds the 46% he averaged in his seventh year in office, which ended on Jan. 19 of this year. This latest rating also exceeds his 47% average since taking office in 2009, spanning nearly four full terms.” At this point, President Obama’s approval rating is now on par with Ronald Reagan’s approval rating at the same point in their respective presidencies. But does this really mean anything? Do presidential approval ratings provide a useful gauge as to a president’s job performance?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
National polls have been asking the public to rate the president’s job performance since 1935, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term in office. Many different question wordings are still employed (e.g., one poll utilizes a four point scale (excellent, good, fair, or poor)), but the most widely used version of this question was adopted by The Gallup Poll in 1945 – “Do you approve or disapprove of the way [president’s name] is handling his job as president?” While a few decades ago political junkies had to wait a week or two for the latest results, today hardly a day goes by without a new set of approval figures being served up by one organization or another. The availability of so many different measures of the public’s evaluation of the president’s job performance means that one poll with results that seem aberrant can be checked against others in a timely fashion.
The purpose of these polls is to provide pollsters with an accurate reading on the president’s level of popularity. But it is highly questionable whether they serve that purpose.
Consider the following from Pew Research: “Views of the president among members of the opposing party have become steadily more negative over time. Our 2014 report on political polarization documented this dramatic growth in partisan divisions over views of presidential job performance. Over the course of Obama’s presidency, his average approval rating among Democrats has been 81%, compared with just 14% among republicans.”
That is a 67-point gap in Democratic vs. Republican ratings of President Obama.
From a historical perspective, this is remarkable, and is only comparable to one other president: George W. Bush. Six of Obama’s seven years in office rank among the 10 most polarized in the last 60 years, with George W. Bush holding the other four spots. Even the structure of job approval ratings for Obama and Bush is remarkably similar, particularly in the sixth year in office. For both presidents, their sixth year in office saw a 79% approval rating among supporters of the president’s party, and a 9% approval rating from supporters of the opposition party (a 70-point gap). In contrast, in Bill Clinton’s sixth year, there was an average 53-point gap in his approval ratings. And even Richard Nixon, who had historically low approval ratings, had polarization scores below 50 points.
A certain degree of political polarization is to be expected. That is the point of politics – we root for those politicians we voted for, and against those we didn’t. But the degree of polarization during the Obama and Bush presidencies is significant. Again, from Pew Research: “During Eisenhower’s two terms, from 1953-1960, an average of 49% of Democrats said they approved of the job the Republican president was doing in office. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an average of 31% of Democrats approved of his job performance. And just over a quarter (27%) of Republicans offered a positive assessment of Clinton between 1993 and 2000. But the two most recent presidents – George W. Bush and Obama – have not received even this minimal level of support.” The idea that Republicans impeached Clinton and tried to throw him out of office, but still got more of their support than President Obama is particularly vexing.
None of this is to say that presidential approval polls are worthless. They clearly carry enormous political value as fodder for pundits and politicians alike. But it is decidedly not the case that these polls provide an accurate measure of a president’s job performance, and given the extreme intensity of the opposition, it is difficult to see how these polls can provide an accurate reading on the president’s true level of popularity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the polls are wrong, but it does indicate that presidential approval polling is probably a better measure of political polarization than the president’s job performance.
Word Count: 646 (bust)
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week took a look at anti-abortion legislation and the recent Supreme Court abortion case. Read the Column for March 9, 2016 – Anti-Abortion Legislation Is a Threat to Public Health.
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