President Obama's job approval rating has fallen over the last two months, prompting two questions for pundits and pollsters. Has most of the decline occurred among independents? And what is responsible for the change?
While the significance of the shift among independents may vary, depending on what poll you look at, the decline in Obama's numbers during June and July has a clear culprit: A spate of bad economic news over the last 10 weeks.
Obama's ratings fell in June and July after remaining mostly flat during the spring. Our Pollster.com trend estimate, a composite of all public polls, had shown Obama's job approval rating at a fairly consistent 59 to 60 percent during March, April and May. His approval percentage fell roughly 5 percentage points during June and the first week of July, however, and as of this writing, stands at 55 percent.
How important have independents been in the recent slide?
• The Gallup organization reported last week that its daily tracking survey showed Obama's approval rating "down most significantly among independents" (to 53 percent) in the first eight days of July as compared to the average in June (59 percent). Over the same period, Gallup showed a 2-point drop among Republicans and a 1-point increase among Democrats.
• The trend among independents does not look as distinctive on the charts of approval by party that we maintain at Pollster.com, although these include monthly updates for the daily tracking conducted by Gallup and Rasmussen Reports, so they do not yet reflect surveys conducted in early July. As of this writing, we show a roughly 7-point drop among both independents and Republicans since early May, and a smaller decline -- roughly 3 points -- among Democrats.
Democratic pollster Doug Schoen told Politico last week that these results represent a "sea change in American politics," that independents had "become effectively operational Democrats in 2006 and 2008" but are now "up for grabs" and "trending Republican."
Perhaps, but remember that according to the national exit poll, Obama carried independents by an 8-point margin (52 percent to 44 percent) last November. While Gallup and most other pollsters are surveying adults, not likely voters, a 53 percent approval rating among independents does not exactly represent a "sea change" as compared to his vote from independents last year.
Still, Obama's overall approval numbers have definitely been trending down, among independents and overall, since early May, due mainly to the bad economic news.
We can see the effect clearly thanks to a new question tracked since December by the Pew Research Center's News Interest Index surveys. Once a month, they ask Americans if they are "hearing mostly good news about the economy these days, mostly bad news about the economy or a mix of both good and bad news." Back in December, four out of five respondents said they were hearing mostly bad news. Early this year, that number steadily declined, bottoming out at 31 percent in mid-May. As Pew reported last week, however, perceived bad news has once again increased, to 37 percent in mid-June and 41 percent in the first week of July.
The chart below compares the trend in perceived bad news to Pollster.com trend estimates for both the Obama job rating and a question asked in many national polls about whether the country seems to be "headed in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track."
Not surprisingly, the "right direction" and "heard mostly bad news lately" trend lines are mirror images of each other. And while Obama's approval number held mostly steady from March through May, the chart strongly implies that the recent bad economic news has taken its toll.
The perception of bad economic news certainly tracks reality. The Obama job approval number fell below 59 percent in the second week of June, about a week after General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection. On June 15, the Dow Jones Industrial average fell by almost 190 points, beginning a four-week slide of more than 600 points. And on July 2, the Labor Department released a monthly snapshot showing the rate of unemployment increasing to a new high of 9.5 percent.
The apparent relationship between economic news and the president's approval rating is not surprising. "Political science has consistently found that perceptions of the economy are powerful influences on presidential approval," said my Pollster.com colleague, University of Wisconsin professor Charles Franklin. "Surprisingly, people's own job situation is less important than how they view the economy as a whole. Perceptions of the economy are driven by real movement in objective indicators, but it is perceptions that have direct impact on the president's approval rating."
The pattern in Obama's job rating also reflects what pollster Mark Mellman describes as "two tendencies fighting each other." We have a new, personally-popular president facing an economic reality that, barring a quick economic rebound, will drag his numbers down further over the next few months. "Eventually," said Mellman, "gravity will out."
In the long run -- meaning 2010 and beyond -- where Obama's approval ratings go will depend largely on the direction of the economy.