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Why Obama's Job Approval Matters

Why Obama's Job Approval Matters

By Sean Trende - November 15, 2013

President Obama's job approval these days is not hale and hearty. Here is the trend over the past year:

Chris Cillizza has noted that, if you make this observation online, you're likely to receive a rash of snarky tweets pointing out that Obama won’t be up for re-election next year. This may be true, but he will very much be on the ballot. Here’s the relationship between presidential job approval in the final Gallup poll before midterm Election Day and the share of the president’s party’s congressional delegation that went down to defeat:

This isn’t a perfect relationship, but presidential job approval is still the most important variable for how his party fares in midterm elections, explaining about half of the variance. The relationship is highly statistically significant: For every point in job approval the president loses, his party loses 0.6 percent of its caucus. (The chart doesn’t measure drop in job approval; just job approval.) So, at 60 percent, the president should lose 5 percent of his caucus; at 50 percent, it is around 12 percent of his caucus lost; at 40 percent, it’s about 18 percent of his caucus lost -- which would be 36 seats. 

Now the latter is highly unlikely to happen. To pick up 36 seats, the GOP would have to win every seat that Obama won with 56 percent of the vote or less in 2012. Right now the GOP only holds five seats the president won with 54 percent of the vote or more, and only one seat he won with over 56 percent of the vote. Because the GOP’s seat total is well above its historical average (the third-largest majority since 1946), 40 seats probably describes the universe of potentially competitive seats, rather than the number of seats that Democrats are likely to lose.

As I’ve said before, this election isn’t going to be about sixth-year itches or any such electoral mumbo-jumbo. It’s going to be about presidential job approval, supplemented by the state of the economy (which also affects job approval to a degree) and how overexposed or underexposed the president’s party is. Right now, the second factor provides a drag beyond the president’s job approval, while the third factor will work heavily to Democrats’ advantage on Election Day.

With that said, the best midterm showing for the party of a president with a sub-45 percent job approval came in 1950, when the Democrats lost 11 percent of their caucus. This election occurred under fairly similar circumstances: Harry Truman was unpopular, but his party was well below the number of seats it typically held and the economy was growing.

It is still far too early to speculate about how many seats Democrats will lose (or perhaps gain) in the 2014 elections. But if Obama’s job approval is 40 percent on Election Day, gains would be unlikely, and Democratic losses in the low double digits -- perhaps even as many as the 20 or so seats that would accompany losing 11 percent of their caucus, a la 1950 -- would be plausible.

Of course, House seats don’t matter all that much, unless the president’s approvals stay at 40 percent through 2016 and a Republican president is elected. The big game is in the Senate. In 2014, there will be seven Democratic seats up for re-election in states that were more Republican than the country as a whole over the course of the last two presidential elections, according to Cook PVI.

If these states continue to center around the national median, that would suggest that Democrats in these states will be running with a president of their own party whose job approval is below 40 percent in their states -- perhaps well below 40 percent. That would be poisonous to Democratic chances in these states. Another eight Democratic senators would be running for re-election in states where the president’s job approval is probably upside-down.

In 2010, I remarked that Democrats had dodged a bullet in terms of the Senate, because their most vulnerable seats weren’t up for re-election that cycle. I noted, however, that getting smacked with a wave in 2012 or 2014 could set the Democratic Party back for years, because of how overexposed they were in those cycles. Will there be a wave in 2014? We don’t know, but a lot will depend on where the president’s approval rating is on Election Day. For Democratic members of the House and Senate, his job approval is no laughing matter. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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