In using public opinion polls to predict electoral outcomes, it’s crucial to consider not only what people feel but how strongly, how passionately they feel it.
In that context, a new AP-GfK survey of 1,012 adults taken between March 20th and 24th delivers more than a warning for President Obama and his allies; it provides undeniable indications of sweeping rejection that could result in a tidal wave election seven months from now.
Most headlines regarding the poll emphasized the broad dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine or his highest-ever general disapproval numbers—some 59 percent say they disapprove of his job performance, while only 41 percent like the way he’s leading the country, for a crushing negative margin of 18 points.
But the details within those figures bring even worse news for the White House. Respondents who said they approved of the president’s performance got the chance to choose whether they “strongly approved”, “somewhat approved” or merely “leaned more toward approving.” Here, the fervor of Obama’s critics simply overwhelmed the enthusiasm of his defenders. A mere 14 percent of American adults “strongly approved” of his job in office, while two-and-a-half times as many– 36 percent – “strongly disapproved.” Leaving out the “leaners” on both sides, 48 percent of respondents either “strongly” or “somewhat” disapproved, while a pathetic 24 percent either “strongly” or “somewhat” approved – a ratio of precisely two-to-one. This matters, because those who suggest they only “lean” in one direction or another are much less likely to vote in November – especially in a mid-term, non-presidential election.
On the specifics of the president’s performance, more shockingly bad news for the Democrats: on each one of nine issues raised in the poll, respondents decisively disapproved of “the way Barack Obama is handling” the question at hand. The public disliked his stewardship of the economy by a margin of 20 points, disagreed with his budgetary leadership by 27 points, and even gave thumbs down to his foreign policy (considered a strong suit in prior polls) by 18 points. On immigration, it’s true a clear majority favored the policy of “providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become US citizens” but they still disapproved of Obama’s general handling of the immigration issue – by an overwhelming margin of 22 points.
Worst of all for the president, the across-the-board distaste for his operation in office has taken its toll on his once-lofty ratings in personal favorability. In the past, many Americans – often more than a fourth – told pollsters that they disagreed with one or another of Obama’s policies but still expressed a favorable opinion of him as a person. No longer: Americans now view him unfavorably by a margin of 9 points. Even more revealing, only 22 percent see him “very favorably” while a devastating 37 percent view him “very unfavorably.” In other words, those impassioned members of the public who are virtually certain to come out and vote against the president’s allies outnumber by nearly two-to-one those who are all but certain to support them.
These numbers, as reassuring as they may be for conservatives, hardly signal a surge of support for Tea Party principles or ideological activism. “The Tea Party Movement” is viewed far more unfavorably than either the Republican or Democratic Parties: only 7 percent say they are “very favorable” toward the Tea Party and a devastating 37 percent describe their attitudes as “very unfavorable”—a profoundly negative ratio of five-to-one.
Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom about growing polarization in American politics, the AP-GfK Poll follows other recent surveys in showing measurable moves to the center from both sides of the spectrum. Compared to a year ago this month, the percentage of self-described “liberals” has declined sharply (from 22 to 18 percent) while the share of “conservatives” also went down (from 40 to 38 percent). Meanwhile, the portion of the public that claimed the mantel of “moderates” soared dramatically – from 30 percent in April 2013 to 40 percent this year.
The fact that the collapse in Obama’s popularity coincided with this significant increase in those who positioned themselves as centrists highlights the principal problem for the Democrats as they face a potentially disastrous election cycle. The plurality of Americans who prefer to avoid clear identification as either liberal or conservative no longer sees Barack Obama as a viable or competent representative of a mainstream, pragmatic approach. His administrative incompetence, his arrogant intention to avoid compromising with Congress on Obamacare or anything else, his determination to govern through executive action of dubious Constitutionality, have all marked him as a strident liberal – an identification shared by less than one-fifth of his countrymen.
If Republicans can provide a credible alternative to a presidential ideologue who is increasingly disliked and disrespected, and if they can continue to connect with the 78 percent of adults who describe themselves as either “conservative” or “moderate,” the latest numbers indicate the chance for unprecedented electoral success and a GOP sweep of historic proportions.