The Obama Watch

The Hollowing-Out of Obama’s Coalition

The center isn't holding for him—or his party.

By 5.8.14

UPI/May 5, 2014
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When rating Obama, Independents are now far closer to Republicans’ views than to Democrats’. This pronounced change in Independents’ sentiment is not only a major reason behind the president’s favorability fall, but should be Democrats’ chief concern in it. If maintained. Independents’ shift would have significant implications for this November’s election — as well as for the one two years later.

Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll (national sample of 1,000 adults, MOE +/-3.5%, released 4/29) showed Obama reaching a new all-time low in job performance, with just 41% approving and 52% disapproving. Obama hitting another low is not surprising this year — which has seen this happen regularly — but how the president did it, is.

To attain even his low 41% approval rating, Obama needed an overwhelmingly positive approval rating of 74%-22% from Democrat respondents. He needed it to offset Republican respondents’ even more pronounced low rating of 12%-82%. Obama also needed heavy Democrat support to offset Independent respondents’ negative 33%-59% job performance rating. 

In 2012’s presidential election, both Democrats’ and Republicans’ tilted views of the president prevailed. In exit polling, Democrats voted for Obama by a 92%-7% margin, while Republicans were equally exaggerated at 6%-93% against. Independents, true to their name, were almost evenly split, going slightly against Obama, 45%-50%.

Of course, voting and polling are not identical. In America, an election is a choice between two major candidates. Voters can be driven to their choice because they are for one candidate, or because they oppose the other. Polling is a verdict only on a single individual — an opinion in a vacuum. Still the two measure support, and in the case of Independents’ support for the president, they show a deep drop in it.

Compared to less than two years ago, Independents have rapidly and significantly soured on Obama. It is not just on his overall job performance either. 

The Washington Post-ABC News poll also asked respondents to rate Obama on his handling of the economy, the Ukrainian situation, and his health care law’s implementation. In each one, Independents rated Obama poorly: on the economy, 34%-61%; on Ukraine, 30%-51%; and on health care, 28%-67%.

Most significantly, Independents were far closer to Republicans’ even poorer ratings of Obama than they were to Democrats’ positive performance rating. 

How much closer Independents’ views of Obama are to Republicans’ than to Democrats’ can be shown by simply comparing how far Independent responses diverged from both Republican and Democrat approval and disapproval ratings. Taking the approval and disapproval difference for both and averaging them, we see that Independents were closer to Republicans by 10.5% on the Ukraine situation, 16% closer on the economy, 25.5% closer on health care, and 17% closer in their overall rating of Obama. 

This shift is bad enough for Obama, but it could be devastating for Democrats running for the Senate in November. This could be especially true in eleven states where overwhelming Democrat majorities do not exist to offset Republicans and Independents’ decidedly negative view of Obama. In these, Democrats are defending seats in seven states Obama lost in 2012 and another four that he won by 6% or less. 

Making matters worse still is the intensity differential between Obama’s supporters and critics. In 2010, Democrat voters’ participation percentage fell to 35% from 2008’s 40%, while both Republicans’ and Independents’ increased. In the current poll, the gap between respondents expressing a strong approval (23%) of Obama’s overall performance and those expressing strong disapproval (40%) were substantially larger than the overall gap. 

November’s midterm election is still six months away and things could certainly change. However, the size of the gap and its intensity make for a daunting task. And the variables that could potentially close these gaps are few and far between.

With first quarter GDP growth coming in at just 0.1%, that leaves just two additional quarters’ worth of economic growth data to come before November. Regardless of how the economy performs in the interim, it is hard to see two quarters altering a record already more than five years old. The same applies to health care, which continues to have a markedly and consistently negative appraisal. 

When Obama won the presidency in 2008, he did so with a powerful Democrat-Independent coalition, in which the latter went 51%-43% for him. Current polling suggests that coalition is hollowing out because of significant

erosion at its center. Such a movement is cause for concern well beyond this coming November. While control of Congress is at stake now, in two years control of the White House will be on the line as well. 

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.