What Obama's Poll Numbers Are Hiding

Democrats should be more worried about President Obama's approval ratings.

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Democrats are relieved. Despite the trio of political scandals encircling the White House, President Obama's approval rating has remained steady over the last few weeks.

After talking with two pollsters, National Journal's Jill Lawrence argued that the president's approval is unlikely to decline much, if at all, because Obama's electoral base is uniquely supportive of him. She explains that he's not like George W. Bush, who "had job-approval ratings in the 20s and 30s for most of his second term."

This is wrong.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

First, Obama's support from his electoral base is not unique. A president's partisans nearly always buoy his approval rating during a scandal. Gallup's historical data show that Ronald Reagan's overall approval rating in 1986 declined from 63 percent in October to 47 percent in December as the Iran-Contra scandal came to light in November of that year. But after this initial drop, Reagan's support remained steady in the high-40s for all of 1987, and the percentage of Republicans approving of the president never fell below 73 percent.

Clinton's support followed a far more unusual trajectory than Obama's approval trend. His approval rating increased after the extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed in January 1998. In late December 1997, Clinton's overall approval was 56 percent and his support among Democrats stood at 83 percent. By February 1, his overall approval was 69 percent and he had the support of 92 percent of Democrats. After this spike, Clinton's support kept to the mid-60s for all of 1998, and the percentage of Democrats approving of the president never fell below 85 percent.

Second, Obama's approval rating over the last year looks almost exactly like George W. Bush's trend. Using a starting point of early May (before Obama's scandals erupted) in presidential year five and walking backwards from 1495 to 1195 days in office, here's a sample of what the comparison looks like.

[See a collection of editorial Cartoons on the IRS Scandal.]

At 1195 days in office, Bush's overall approval was 49 percent and Obama's was 48 percent. Bush had the support of 91 percent of Republicans, whereas Obama had the support of 83 percent of Democrats. At 1255 days in office, both Bush and Obama had overall approval ratings of 47 percent. Bush enjoyed support from 87 percent of Republicans, while Obama had the support of 86 percent of Democrats. Skipping ahead to 1495 days in office, both presidents' approval stood at 51 percent and each garnered support from 88 percent of their respective partisans. In fact, over the entire period, Bush and Obama are nearly mirror images of one another.

Obama's approval ratings and scandal trends are not much different from other presidents. Perhaps, Democrats should be more worried.

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