Are Obama’s Polls Worse Than Meet the Eye?

Stuart Rothenberg July 6, 2011 · 10:16 AM EDT

On their face, President Barack Obama's poll numbers are mediocre but not terrible. His 46 percent job approval in the June 15-19 Pew Research Center survey is far better than President George W. Bush's worst Pew Research Center job numbers, for example.

In March of 2006, Bush's job approval fell to 33 percent in Pew polling, and immediately before the 2008 elections, in late October, his job approval stood at 20 percent, while a stunning 70 percent disapproved. In December 2008, as he was about to leave office, Bush's job ratings stood at 24 percent approval and 68 percent disapproval.

In comparison with those numbers, Obama looks wildly popular.

But Obama continues to earn much higher marks, in part, because his base, including liberal Democrats and African-Americans, has been standing by him, which has tended to prevent his overall job approval numbers from falling as much as they otherwise might.

For example, while Obama's job approval in the Pew survey stood at 46 percent among all adults, it was 87 percent among African-Americans and 81 percent among liberal Democrats.

In comparison, the president's job approval stood at 77 percent among all Democrats, at just 42 percent among independents and at a weak 39 percent among white independents.

Bush couldn't count on the support of a group the way Obama can count on support among African-Americans, who have a strong incentive to see the president in a positive light.

Many of Bush's previously strongest supporters had turned on him by the time the final months of his presidency rolled around. In December 2008, for example, his job ratings among conservative Republicans stood at 66 percent approval and 25 percent disapproval. In comparison, Obama's disapproval among African-Americans was a minuscule 5 percent in the mid-June Pew Research poll.

Because that likely won't happen to Obama, his overall job numbers aren't as useful in understanding his political standing as Bush's were. With Obama, independent voters or even white voters, who still constitute close to three-quarters of the national electorate, provide a better measure of the president's political prospects than do his overall job approval numbers.

In the 2008 national exit poll, Obama won independents, 52 percent to 44 percent, over Republican nominee John McCain. In the recent Pew Research Center survey, only 42 percent of independents said they approved of the president's performance, while 46 percent disapproved.

Of course, all of the president's numbers could change between now and November 2012, but for now, they constitute a considerable problem for him, since independents are a key swing constituency and Obama's strong showing among swing voters was one of the most important reasons why he did so well overall and in key states such as Ohio and Florida.

Obama's problem is also apparent when looking at his standing among white independents. McCain narrowly won the group 49 percent to 47 percent. But in the Pew survey, only 39 percent of white independents approve of the president's job performance, while 51 percent disapprove.

The Pew survey has another interesting number that is worth noting.

The survey found that 46 percent of respondents think the economic condition of the economy is "poor," compared with 8 percent who said either "excellent" or "good" and 45 percent who said "only fair."

But if you look at the cross-tabs provided in the analysis, only 37 percent of Democrats said that the economy is poor, while 52 percent of Republicans picked that description and 50 percent of independents called it poor.

What's the deal? Are Democrats, who are often associated with more downscale voters, doing better in the current economy than Republicans and independents? That's unlikely.

The more logical answer is that Democrats chose to say things aren't as bad as others see them because they wanted to be supportive of the president and understood that saying current economic conditions are "poor" would be an indictment of Obama's leadership.

Sometimes, our partisanship colors how we view reality, rather than our view of reality coloring our partisanship. That's an important thing to remember as we look at survey data.