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Economic News Boosting Obama Approval - Good News For Democrats

Leon Troutsky

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The polls have shown about a 4% jump in Obama's approval ratings since November of last year, largely in response to positive GDP and job numbers. Putting aside the policy discussion here, the politics are very good for Democrats heading into 2015 and create some problems for Republicans.

First, the numbers. This graph is from Pollster.com, which aggregates the polls. I used the "less smoothing" option because it captures short-term trends better:


And here is an article about an NBC News poll that gives a more thorough breakdown. It's not all great news for Obama, of course. Fewer give him credit and there's a "pox on both their houses" trends the comes through.


However, the single biggest political indicators to watch are the objective economic conditions (unemployment and GDP growth), which are the major driver of presidential approval ratings. Regardless of whether people *SAY* that Obama is responsible, those who rate the economy better will inevitably view his performance more positive.

And job approval is a very important element of policy debates. Republicans have been able to attack him for slow economic growth and for not doing enough (even though they were instrumental in blocking some of his policies), which has created strong political incentives for them to work with him to pass legislation.

If the economic news continues to be good then his approval will continue to increase. At this rate, he will break into the 50% range by April or May, and could be into the mid 50% range by the end of the summer. That is IF the economy continues to improve, of course.

What this means is that Republicans will have a much harder time attacking Obama on the economy. Republicans are already shifting from attacking the economy to actually taking credit for its improvement. Mitch McConnell made this claim last week, so they're already showing signs of shifting their rhetoric. High approvals also translate (somewhat) into easier policy-making by presidents facing an opposition party control of Congress. It's not as large of an effect as the economy, but it still gives the president more leverage.

Heading into 2016, it also gives a major advantage to Democrats to have a good economy and a less unpopular president. That's true both for the presidential election and the Senate elections. Remember that the electoral map is horrific for Republicans in 2016, so it makes it more likely that Democrats will retake control of the Senate. [A House takeover is unlikely at this point.]

On the other hand, James Stimson's research has shown that higher consumer sentiment and good economy causes all politicians' approvals to increase. So it's likely that congressional approval will start to tick up, as will the approval for Governors and even state legislatures. That makes it hard for Democrats to get sweeping victories like they would have with Republican control and a terrible economy (2006 and 2008). Ironically, Republicans will actually get a benefit from the economic news as well, though that is not going to translate into better odds of winning senate and presidential elections in 2016. But it will help Governors, some House members, and probably state legislators.

For the tl/dr people, all of this basically means that the basic political dynamic we have seen for the past 4-5 years is going to dramatically shift in 2015 *IF* the economy continues to improve. And while a new era of bipartisanship and legislative accomplishments is not going to happen anytime soon, it does slightly improve the chances of compromise on some major legislative battles. It takes away a lot of the electoral incentives to engage in gridlock that have existed the past few years, in other words.

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Also, there will probably be a lot of bad reporting about Obama's increasing approval ratings, crediting his State of the Union speech and his more aggressive policy agenda. The media love to highlight idiosyncratic things like that as explanations, but they're almost never accurate. It doesn't matter how great his SOTU speech is or how great his PR efforts are, if the economy goes south then the trend will reverse itself.

There are also likely to be some "flash polls" released immediately after the speech. Most of these have a very big flaw in that they only ask people who watched the speech. And Democrats are more likely to watch the SOTU when their party is in power and vice versa for Republicans. Some recent "flash polls" have been a lot more sophisticated in polling the same people before and after the speech to look at trends. These can tell you whether the speech moved a lot to people (mostly Obama's supporters and Independents) or just a few (mostly his supporters), but rarely can these be considered representative of the country as a whole.

The reality is that we won't know until Friday or Saturday, and possibly early next week, how much his approval ratings moved following the speech (if at all). Finally, remember that SOTU approval bumps tend to be short-term, lasting less than a few weeks. Again, it's the economic news that will push them up or down long-term. Everything else just doesn't matter as much.

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