the national interest

The Obama Poll Drop Mystery: Explained!

US President Barack Obama speaks at Fire Station 9 in North Chesterfield, Virginia, on October 19, 2011. Obama accused the Republican opposition of spreading

Yesterday morning, a new Washington Post poll showed a sharp drop in President Obama’s approval rating, from 50 percent approval (and 46 percent disapproval) to the reverse. People on Twitter started tittering. Jonathan Bernstein insisted it was all just random statistical noise. (I believe Bernstein has appeared in numerous science fiction films assuring people that whatever unexplained phenomenon they were seeing was just a weather pattern.) We were all ready to believe Bernstein when, last night, the New York Times came out with its own poll, showing an even sharper drop to 41 percent.

So is something happening here? It’s possible that it’s not. Gallup, which has of late shown much lower results for Obama than other polling outfits, has actually found his approval going up. But the simultaneous plunge does suggest there’s something real at work — some significant chunk of the population has turned sour on Obama over the last few days.

The mystery is why. The Post attributed the drop to a rise in gasoline prices. But the evidence suggests this isn’t a major factor. (See Brad Plumer’s persuasive take.) The Times just threw up its hands. There are no apparent causes of such a drop — no economic catastrophe, no scandal, no foreign policy fiasco, no gaffe. Indeed the news seems to have been smooth and positive for Obama.

Here’s one possible explanation: the Friday jobs report. The jobs report reflected good news, of course. But this may actually be the problem for Obama. A Democracy Corps survey from last month tested elements of Obama’s State of the Union address. The whole thing fared extremely well, except for one bit, where Obama boasted that “America is back.” Democracy Corps found:

Claiming that “America is back” is by far the weakest operative message and produces disastrous results. It is weaker than even the weakest Republican message and is 10 points weaker in intensity than either Republican message. Overall, less than a third of all voters said this message makes them more likely to support the President and a third said this message made them less likely to support Barack Obama.  Alarmingly, this message barely receives majority support among self-identified Democrats — and even less support among all other groups.  Less than a quarter of independents say this message would make them more likely to support the President and no independents said that it would make them much more likely to support him.

Respondents, according to the survey, still felt enormous economic pain and insecurity, and interpreted any positive statements as a sign of complacency and detachment.

That seems to be the message that came through after Friday’s jobs report. Obama appeared at a factory to hail the news, and even declared later that day, yes, “America is coming back.”

This may all be a pure coincidence. But the timing works out almost perfectly, with the Friday news driving three days of polling results that would appear on Monday. If true, this vindicates Democracy Corps’s warning to Obama. The public is ready to credit him for trying, they really hate the Republicans, but they do not think that it’s morning in America and respond badly to any suggestion that they ought to feel cheerful.

The Obama Poll Drop Mystery: Explained!