The Tipping Point?

For quite some time, Republican pollsters have been making the point to their clients: don’t confuse the attitudes of base and swing voters toward the President.  Base GOP voters do not like Obama’s policies, and  they dislike him personally (some more vehemently than others).  However, we had consistently seen in our polls and focus groups that while swing voters are increasingly unhappy with his policies and his politics, they still liked Obama personally. 

Lately, I have been making the case (and others may have as well) that we’re nearing a tipping point for the President’s personal standing.  If his job approval ratings were weak, eventually swing voters would no longer view him as the shining star he believes himself to be.  

With apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, I’m not sure if we are at that tipping point, but we can certainly see it from here — especially if we don’t blink (sorry, Malcolm).

Looking at last week’s NBC/WSJ survey*, there are a number of revealing findings about the President’s problems.  The table below shows the overall evidence by comparing his job approval with his personal positive/negative in the months where they have asked both.  As his job rating has dropped from the high 40s/low 50s, his positives have also dropped.  More telling, however, his negatives have gone from the mid-30s during the winter/spring to the mid-40s now.  I don’t really have an explanation for his June pos/neg — that may well be an outlier (okay, I promise that was the last Malcolm Gladwell homage).

NBC/WSJ Polling: Obama Job Rating, Favorability

Overall, the President went from an average image of 51% pos/34% neg in the first quarter of 2011 to 51% pos/35% neg in the second quarter, to 44% pos/44% neg in August.  That a seventeen point net negative shift in his image (similar to the net negative 14 point shift in job rating — so the two are on a string — when one drops, the other does too).

The news for the President is actually worse — looking  just at intensity, his numbers have gone from 29% very positive/18% very negative in January to 27% very positive/24% very negative in June.  In August?  They flipped upside down — going from June’s +3 to a  -6 now — 24% very positive/30% very negative.  Intensity is crucial to watch — 30% or higher on very positive is a very strong score, while on very negative is a sign of significant weakness.  August marks the first month there has been significantly more voters very negative than very positive.

A look inside the crosstabs comparing the first quarter of 2011 with now shows that Obama’s image:

  • Dropped more with women (-20) than with men (-14).  Now, he’s still got a better image with women (46% pos/42% neg) than men (42% pos/45% neg), but he’s also fallen from a higher standing.
  • Suffered its biggest geographic drop in the West (net -30).  There were double digit drops in the South and Midwest and just a single digit drop in his Northeast political base.
  • Took bigger hits with 35-49 year olds and 50-64 year olds.  Seniors did not move much, while younger voters went from hero worship to still pretty darn supportive.
  • Didn’t move much with lower income voters, but did drop more than 20 points with lower middle income and upper income ($75k+).
  • Dropped the same with Independents (-16) and Republicans (-17). 
  • Took more of a hit with liberals than with moderates and conservatives.  He’s so negatively perceived with conservatives that it couldn’t drop all that much.  He’s still more popular with liberals, but they had the most room to drop. 

There’s conflicting evidence in the rest of the poll — which suggest Obama has not completely lost his personal touch with the voters.  Asked to rate Obama on some different qualities on a scale of one to five, with “five” being a “very good” rating and “one” being a “very poor rating,” there are still 65% who rate him a four or five on “being easygoing and likable” compared to just 18% who rate him poorly (a one or a two).  Those are much better numbers than the 42%-38% split on “having strong leadership qualities,” for instance.  That’s dropped back from 54%-23% in May (after the death of Osama bin Laden), which is a extremely speedy deterioration of an important presidential quality. 

(While the Obama team is attempting to model his re-elect on Reagan, I doubt they’ll be printing “Leadership That’s Working” bumper stickers.  Unless someone has a pretty bad sense of irony.)

So, given the bitter anger and hatred with which Democrats attacked Reagan and both President Bushs in their re-elects, Republicans are tempted to do the same with Obama.  While his image has taken a hit, it’s still much better to focus on his policies than his personal characteristics.  Besides, we wouldn’t want to be accused of playing rough.

* This post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of anyone involved in the NBC/WSJ poll, either of the two media outlets or the two talented pollsters.