obama more popular than he should be?

topic posted Wed, May 2, 2012 - 6:16 PM by  Gerbil
May 2, 2012, 12:25 pm
Is Obama More Popular Than He Should Be?

It’s well known that presidential approval ratings are a powerful predictor of election outcomes. President Obama’s current 47 percent approval rating would be among the lowest approval ratings of any incumbent president who went on to be re-elected.

What’s striking, however, is that Mr. Obama may be more popular than he should be. That is the result of some new analysis that will be included in a book I’m writing with a fellow political scientist, Lynn Vavreck, on the 2012 election. I’ll preview a bit of it here.

Presidential popularity hinges primarily on several factors. There is, for many presidents, an inexorable decline in popularity that comes with time. The longer a president is in office, the less popular he is. Popularity is also affected, positively or negatively, by salient events like scandals, wars and foreign policy crises. Finally, and most important, there is the economy.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating has thus far experienced relatively few ups and downs linked to singular events. There have been no big scandals, for example. The Solyndra bankruptcy, the General Services Administration’s over-the-top Las Vegas conference and the Secret Service prostitution debacle haven’t quite proven to be Watergate, Iran-contra or even Whitewater. The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 produced only a temporary increase in approval. Instead, Mr. Obama’s initial popularity in the “honeymoon” after he was inaugurated has generally been on a gradual decline — a trend that is most likely traceable to the damaging recession and weak recovery, which have created persistent pessimism about the economy.

But this pessimism never eroded Mr. Obama’s approval as much as it arguably should have. There are several ways to show this. One way is to predict Mr. Obama’s approval based on the economy and other fundamental factors, and then see whether his actual approval matches, exceeds, or falls short of the prediction. To do so, we use 60 years of quarterly data on presidential approval, which contain polls from 1948 to 2008, and construct a statistical model of approval that includes these factors:

• The approval rating from the previous quarter, since approval ratings are cross-correlated with themselves. Thus, we exclude the first quarter of each president’s term. We also exclude two quarters in which presidents overlapped (after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Richard M. Nixon’s resignation).

• Three key economic indicators: the unemployment rate, the change in gross domestic product since the previous quarter, and the change in inflation since the previous quarter.

• The presence of salient events like scandals and wars that might push approval up or down (based on previous research). At this point, we consider the killing of Bin Laden to be the only such event during Mr. Obama’s tenure. We are adding additional events to our data, but given how little Mr. Obama’s approval has moved in response to specific events, we doubt that this will change the results

• The length of time in office (measured in quarters).

We also allow the effects of the economic indicators to depend on how long the president has served, assuming that presidents might not be credited or blamed for the economy they inherit when taking office, but would be later in their tenure. We can use this model to predict Mr. Obama’s approval from 2009 through 2011. The question we can then answer is this: Based on the historical relationship between presidential approval and the economy as well as these other factors, is Mr. Obama more or less popular than the model would predict, given the economy and other circumstances during his first three years in office? Here is a graph depicting Mr. Obama’s actual approval and expected approval:

In fact, he is more popular than expected, and consistently so throughout these three years. His quarterly approval ratings are, on average, nine points higher than expected.

Mr. Obama’s experience is more the exception than the rule. Using these same data and model, we can construct an estimate of expected approval for every president back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. To do so, we simply exclude a president from the analysis, estimate the model, and then generate an out-of-sample prediction for that president. When we do that for each president, here are the results (click on the image to enlarge):
Actual vs. expected approval, Eisenhower through Obama. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Only two other presidents have experienced a discrepancy between expected and actual approval in their first terms that was larger than the discrepancy in Mr. Obama’s first three years. One was George W. Bush, and this arises largely because the model doesn’t fully anticipate the quickness and size of the “rally effect” that took place after Sept. 11, 2001. The other was Ronald Reagan, whose first-term approval ratings exhibited more fluctuation than Mr. Obama’s but were about 10 points above the model’s expectations, on average.

Mr. Obama’s higher-than-expected approval rating is surprising for two reasons. For one, since 2009 the economy has been in not a garden-variety recession, but a deep and prolonged slump. The economic measures in our model capture some of its characteristics — like unemployment — but not all, like the rise in long-term employment. Second, Mr. Obama’s race may also depress his approval rating. Studies of the 2008 election have found that Americans’ views of blacks were strongly associated with their views of Mr. Obama, and racial prejudice may have cost Mr. Obama about three points of vote share. Our model does not take account of race either, which is inevitable when there has been only one nonwhite president.

So why would Mr. Obama be more popular than the economy and other factors might predict? One possibility is his personal likeability. Despite the armchair diagnoses of some pundits, large majorities of Americans perceive him as warm, empathetic and a good communicator. Although many fewer Americans approve of his performance in office, perhaps his personal appeal has boosted his job approval among some Americans.

A second possibility concerns whom Americans blame for the economy. Based on some recent polling data, I found that Mr. Obama continues to receive less blame than George W. Bush for the country’s economic problems. If, hypothetically speaking, every American blamed Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush equally, his approval rating would be about 11 points lower — enough to erase the gap between actual and expected approval in the first graph above. Of course, “hypothetically speaking” is the best we can do, short of replaying history and having Americans blame Mr. Obama more.

Nevertheless, “the blame game” conceivably has something to do with why Mr. Obama has remained more popular than we might expect. And if his better-than-expected popularity continues, it might give him just enough of an edge to defeat Mitt Romney in what is likely to be a close election.
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  • Re: obama more popular than he should be?

    Wed, May 9, 2012 - 8:10 AM
    May 8, 2012, 5:08 pm
    Is Obama More Popular Than He Should Be, Revisited

    In an earlier post, I noted that President Obama’s approval rating was higher than a model of presidential approval predicted — something that seemed to set him apart from previous presidents. In response, commenters here on FiveThirtyEight and The Monkey Cage (see also Jay Cost) noticed that, for most presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower until Mr. Obama, the model’s predicted approval rating was consistently lower than the actual approval rating. In this post, I want to do four things:

    Describe why this was true.
    Report results from what I think is a better model.
    Demonstrate that my original point — Mr. Obama is more popular than expected — still holds, but to a lesser extent.
    Extend the analysis by showing that Mr. Obama’s “better-than-expected” popularity is due to his appeal among Democrats and independents, but not Republicans.

    First, why did the model seem to underestimate the approval of most presidents? The reason was how the model dealt with this fact: in addition to the systematic factors that influence presidential approval — economic indicators, for example — idiosyncratic factors will also influence approval. If we want to look at presidential approval from 1948 to 2008, then predict what Mr. Obama’s approval “should be,” how should we account for these idiosyncratic factors?

    In my earlier post, I did this by including a variable for each presidential administration from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. I did not include a variable for Harry S. Truman, since the model cannot have a set of factors that perfectly predict each other — and given that the presidential approval data start in 1948 and end in 2008, knowing that the president is not Eisenhower up through George W. Bush means that you can perfectly predict that it must be Truman. (See the “dummy variable trap.”) Instead, Truman’s approval rating would be reflected in the model’s intercept — that is, the estimated approval rating when the other variables in the model equal zero and when the president is none of Eisenhower through George W. Bush.

    The problem arises because the intercept is part of the prediction of Mr. Obama’s approval ratings. And because Truman was unpopular during his second term — on average, only 39 percent of Americans approved of him — the intercept is deflated. Thus, the model’s predictions for Mr. Obama and most other presidents would tend to be lower than their actual ratings, simply because most presidents have been (on average) more popular than was Truman during his second term. This is what commenters noticed. After further reflection, I believe this feature of the model was a mistake. I thank commenters for making me think harder about this. (And now might be a good time to remind readers, especially those reading via RSS, that the “I” is not Nate Silver but John Sides, a guest blogger.) This is a nice example of how online commentary about articles can generate important insights.

    A better model would essentially average the idiosyncratic factors of each president to generate a baseline against which Mr. Obama’s approval could be evaluated. One way to do that is to estimate a fixed-effects model. In this model, the intercept becomes the average of the approval ratings of the presidents besides Mr. Obama, again assuming that any other factor in the model is equal to zero. Using this model, and including the same economic and other factors as in the original model, I can again generate an out-of-sample prediction for each president from Truman through Mr. Obama (click image to enlarge):

    This model’s predictions are not consistently greater than actual approval. There is instead a mixture of under- and overestimation. To be sure, the model is not perfect. Because the model includes a “lagged” measure of presidential approval (that is, presidential approval in the previous quarter), the model’s predictions also sometimes lag the president’s actual approval rating by a quarter. This is particularly true when the model does not fully anticipate sharp increases in approval, like the rally effects at the outset of the gulf war, after Sept. 11, etc. Still, the model of approval from 1948 to 2008 explains about 84 percent of the variation in approval ratings. The median discrepancy between actual approval ratings and the model’s predictions is only 3.2 points in absolute value.

    So what about Mr. Obama? Here is a graph just of his actual and expected approval ratings.

    As in my original post, Mr. Obama is generally more popular than he should be. But his approval rating exceeds the prediction by about 2.7 points, on average, not by the nine points I originally reported. In certain quarters, his approval rating does exceed expectations by a larger amount — for example, by eight points at the beginning of 2011, when gross domestic product grew very slowly and inflation increased somewhat, but his approval rating remained steady. His rating is also six points larger than expected in the first quarter of 2012, which is the most recent quarter in which the economic data is available. Indeed, over the past three quarters, there is a hint that the gap between Mr. Obama’s expected approval and his actual approval is beginning to grow.

    Mr. Obama is again more popular than most other presidents, relative to the model’s prediction. If you consider the out-of-sample predictions for all presidents, only one president consistently “beat” the prediction in his first term to an extent greater than Mr. Obama: Ronald Reagan, who was about 3.3 points more popular than the prediction, on average.

    Mr. Obama’s better-than-expected popularity arises largely because he is more popular with Democrats and independents, but not Republicans. Using historical presidential approval data broken down by party, I estimated the same model and compared its prediction to Mr. Obama’s actual approval among Democrats, independents and Republicans (click on image to enlarge).

    On average, Mr. Obama’s approval is higher than expected among Democrats and independents, but not among Republicans. In fact, his approval is actually slightly lower than expected among Republicans. Among first-term presidents, his performance versus expectations within his own party is exceeded only by Reagan’s performance. In fact, it’s worth contrasting Mr. Obama to other recent Democratic presidents. Bill Clinton performed no better or worse than expected among Democrats. Jimmy Carter performed much worse than expected (seven points). These facts may allay frequent fears (or hopes) during Mr. Obama’s first term that he was “losing the base” or otherwise losing support among important Democratic constituencies. This may have been true among some Democratic or liberal activists — many of whom disagreed with the president on various issues — but it was largely not true among Democrats in the public. Not only does Mr. Obama remain relatively popular among Democrats, but he is also more popular than we might otherwise expect. In the most recent quarter, his approval among Democrats (as well as independents) is about six points higher than expected.

    Of course, these results aren’t necessarily surprising. As the political scientist Gary Jacobson has documented, presidential approval ratings are increasingly polarized by party. This has certainly been true of Mr. Obama. But the very forces of partisan polarization — the “red America” and “blue America” — that Mr. Obama deplored as a presidential candidate may have buoyed his approval rating as president.

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