Popularity Is Relative: Why Nate Silver Is Too Pessimistic About Obama’s Reelection Chances

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Not so fast with the doom
Not so fast with the doom Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Nate Silver has an interesting (as usual) analysis of President Obama’s reelection chances, which he tabulates at a bit under 50-50. The catch is that he’s trying to quantify something that’s hard to quantify. The 2012 presidential race is pretty different. Obviously, every presidential race is different than the others, but this one seems to be extra different.

Silver's key assumption is that Obama's approval rating is likely to hover around 43 percent, where it currently stands. Obama is an incumbent presiding over a terrible economy. That is typically a recipe for doom. On the other hand, the terrible economy started under his predecessor, whom large numbers of Americans continue to blame. What’s more, the opposition party remains wildly unpopular, with a majority of Floridians recently saying they believe Republicans are deliberately sabotaging the economy. The election seems to pit the immovable object against the irresistible force — except, kind of, the opposite.

The prevailing view is that an election is a referendum on the incumbent. And, indeed, the Florida poll that shows a majority think Republicans are sabotaging the economy also shows that only 41 percent approve of Obama’s job performance. Hating the opposition doesn't make voters like the incumbent.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the unacceptability of the Republican Party will redound to Obama’s benefit. That is what I think happened in 2004. President Bush was unpopular at the beginning of the year, but he relentlessly painted John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Over the course of the campaign, Bush’s approval ratings rose from the mid-forties to just over 50 percent:


Did something happen to make people approve more highly of Bush? Possibly, but I don’t think so. I suspect that many Americans started the year thinking about Bush in absolute terms, and then as the campaign wore on, they started to think of him within the context of a partisan choice. That essentially pushed a number of Bush disapprovers who couldn’t stand Kerry to decide they approved of Bush after all. Probably the growing polarization of the electorate helped push Republican-leaning voters disgruntled with Bush to soften toward him as the election neared.

If that’s correct then Obama has a chance to have his approval rating rise simply by drawing a sharp contrast against the Republican nominee. In other words, incumbent approval rating isn't something that's independent of the opposing candidate. Voters may shape their view of the incumbent by making a comparison.

I don’t want to overstate this. It may be wrong. (Or, as a great man once put it, "I don't have the facts to back this up.") But I think that we have to be a little cautious about interpreting the importance of Obama’s mediocre approval ratings in the face of a polarized electorate and a still-discredited opposition party.