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Why It Matters that Obama’s Approval Rating Is Falling

- June 18, 2013

Despite ridiculous hype about a recent CNN poll that showed an exaggerated 8-point drop in Obama’s approval rating, there’s no doubt that his approval rating is about 4 points lower than it was in January 2013.  There’s lots of speculation as to why — see, e.g., Nate Silver.  But I want to say why it matters.  Justin Wolfers, for one, is dubious.  And a journalist also emailed me on this subject today.  [Update: That journalist was John Dickerson.  See his piece here.]

The decline matters for three reasons.

First, it matters for the 2014 election.  A simple model of House election outcomes constructed by political scientist Gary Jacobson shows that the share of seats controlled by the president’s party depends in part on presidential approval.  You can see some discussion of that in Jacobson’s post-mortem on the 2010 election.  Obviously, other factors matter too.  But a less popular president certainly provides headwinds for Democratic candidates.

Second, it matters for the 2016 election.  Of course, that’s a long way away, and a lot can happen between now and then.  But again, simple forecasting models show that, controlling for other factors, the incumbent party does better when the incumbent president is popular.  (See, for example, what Lynn Vavreck and I report in Chapter 2 of The Gamble.)  Approval appears to matter more when the incumbent president is running for reelection, but it still appears to matter even when that president is not running.  Let’s quantify that.  I estimated a model of presidential election outcomes from  1948-2012 that included change in gross domestic product over the first two quarters of the election year, presidential approval as of June of the election  year, an indicator for whether the incumbent is running, and the interaction of approval and incumbency.  This model suggests that when the incumbent is not running, a 7-point drop in approval is associated with a 1-point drop in the incumbent party candidate’s share of the major-party vote.  If I were Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic hopeful, I’d want Obama to be as popular as possible when he leaves office.  And if I were Obama and I wanted the legislative achievements of my presidency to last, I’d want a Democrat to win in 2016.

Third, it matters for whether the President gets what he wants from Congress — with some caveats.  Here’s a sense of some of the scholarly literature on the relationship between presidential approval and legislative success.  One question is whether Congress simply passes legislation that the president supports.  In one study (gated) of 208 roll call votes in the House between 1989-2000, political scientists Brandice Canes-Wrone and Scott de Marchi found the House was more likely to do what the president wanted when the president was more popular.  This effect was only significant among legislation that was both salient (mentioned a lot in news coverage) and somewhat complex (focusing on regulatory matters in particular).  But, of course, that’s exactly the kind of legislation — e.g., immigration, gun control — that Obama would like to sign right now.

Another question is whether the legislation that passes is actually substantively close to what the president wanted.  That is, the president may support legislation as long as it is closer to his preferences than the status quo, but still may not get what he wanted.  Political scientists Andrew Barrett and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha examined (pdf) 191 different major laws passed between 1965 and 2000 and measured how similar they were to what the president had asked for.  Was the law basically a rubber stamp of the president’s position?  Did the law force the president to compromise with congressional leaders?  Or did the president sign it even though it was nothing like what he wanted?  Barrett and Eshbaugh-Soha find that presidential approval was associated with laws that looked more like the president’s preferences.

Of course, approval is just one factor among many.  And it may be less relevant now in this era of highly polarized parties.  In this article, Jon Bond, Richard Fleisher, and B. Dan Wood find that presidential approval seems to matter less for legislative success as partisanship in Congress increases.  One interpretation is that in highly partisan eras, presidents will get most of their party’s support but little of the opposing party’s support no matter how popular or unpopular there are.  So right now it may matter less whether Obama’s approval rating is 50% or 46%.

With those caveats noted, I still think that, on balance, presidential approval matters — for elections and for policy — even in a president’s second term.