America’s Political Barometer

There is no special insight in saying the American electorate is deeply unhappy with our political leadership, the economy, and the direction of the country. But, as pollsters, we do keep looking to find new and insightful ways to measure this discontent and compare it across time.

Even after a decade of a plurality to majority of Americans saying the country is headed off on the “wrong track,” I keep trying to reinforce the historic nature of today’s discontent, as in, the worst measured in the last 20-plus years.

One way to evaluate attitudes toward the president and the political parties is a new measure called “America’s Political Barometer” that looks at presidential approval and the positive opinion of the two political parties to create one average satisfaction rating.

Here is the calculation for January 2014:

chart 1

There has not been any real improvement since January, as the average today is only one point higher, 36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}. That number is still lower than any other year.

This average number can be compared to the first poll of every year since 1993. Here is the point about this year’s readings of 35{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in January and 36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} today – these are the lowest results across a 20 year time span!

Chart 2

Given President Obama’s much higher job approval ratings among certain key constituencies such as African Americans and Latinos as compared to President Bush’s, the fact this overall rating is lower speaks volume about today’s level of discontent over this period.

We cannot know, of course, what lies ahead for President Obama, but this data makes clear he runs the risk of this barometer score being lower in his second term than comparable numbers for the very difficult second term that President Bush went through. That America’s Political Barometer during President Obama’s second term could be lower than President Bush’s second term, which included the beginning of The Great Recession, helps us calibrate today’s level of discontent with our country’s parties and political leadership.

chart 3

And, overall, President Obama’s job approval rating today looks strikingly similar to President Bush’s rating at a roughly comparable time in his presidency:

 chart 4

There is this important difference, though: the ratings of the two presidents among White respondents (still roughly three out of four Americans). At roughly this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, his approval rating among White Americans was 44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve/52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove. Today, President Obama’s approval among Whites stands at 33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}/63{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} – a net 22 points lower than his predecessor.

(Of course, Obama’s job rating strength among minority voters keeps him on the same level overall as Bush.)

And it may seem hard to believe now, but it is not the case that most Americans have always had a negative view of both political parties. Actually, the norm has been to have a generally favorable view of each of the political parties.

In the 12 years between April 1993 and April 2005, the NBC/WSJ survey tested the parties’ images a total of 60 times. We only recorded net negatives for the Democratic Party three times (October and December of 1994 around the Republican Revolution and again in September 1999) and for the Republican Party six times (March and June of 1996, December 1998 through March 1999 around the time of the Clinton impeachment, and in March 2000). Both parties had net positive (or break-even) ratings 85{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of the time during this period!

Around May 2005, things changed for both parties. Since then, the Republican Party has only been net positive once (in December 2010, and even then only by one percentage point). Things have been a little more up and down for the Democrats, who registered seven net positive and seven net negative ratings between May 2005 and the Election of 2006, and then 22 net positive and one net negative rating from December 2006 through October 2009. Since December of 2009, however, the Democratic Party has had only 15 net positive, two break-even, and 26 net negative ratings.

While the last decade has been more difficult for the two parties, today’s rating for the Republican Party (29{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} positive/45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} negative) is among its worst ever showings. The Democrats, while registering better ratings than Republicans (38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} positive/40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} negative), are also at a low ebb.

There is no question the lower approval ratings for the Republican brand are a barrier to potential Republican electoral gains this fall, but, the overall point is to recognize the historically low ratings for our entire political leadership – the president and the parties – in a way that suggests a fundamental anger and dissatisfaction that ripples through our entire political system in a way that makes consensus and action difficult to achieve.


The data in this blog post is from NBC/Wall Street Journal polling, including one July 30–August 3, 2014, conducted by Democratic pollster Fred Yang and me. This analysis is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of NBC, The Wall Street Journal, or Hart Research Associates.

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