Here’s why President Obama’s dismal approval ratings matter this November

July 24, 2014

Any time I write about President Obama's lackluster poll numbers, any number of people take to Twitter to helpfully remind me that he isn't on the ballot this fall and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third time. Their argument comes down to this: Who cares what President Obama's approval ratings are?

A new national Pew Research Center poll shows why any Democrat on the ballot this November should care. Roughly three in ten people said that their vote this fall would be "against" Obama as compared to just 19 percent who said that their vote would be to show support for the president. Those numbers aren't as bad as what George W. Bush and Republicans faced before the 2006 midterms (38 percent voting against Bush, 15 percent voting for him) but are worse for Obama than at this time in the 2010 election cycle (28 percent vote against, 23 percent vote for) in which the president's party lost 63 house seats.

Image courtesy of Pew
Image courtesy of Pew

As interesting/important question is who Obama is motivating to vote this fall. A majority (51 percent) of voters who say they are planning to vote for a Republican in their district say they mean that as a vote against Obama. Among self-identified Republicans, 55 percent say their congressional vote is meant to be against Obama; 61 percent of conservatives say the same.  On the other end of the spectrum, just 36 percent say that their vote for Congress is meant as a vote for Obama. More than one in four (27 percent) of independents say their vote is against Obama; just 10 percent say it is in support of the president.

What those numbers suggest is that while Obama is not the only factor in how people will vote this fall, he is absolutely a factor in how people are making up their minds. And, at the moment, people who see 2014 as a way to send a signal of disapproval about Obama greatly outnumber the people who want to use their vote to show their support for him and his agenda.

History backs up the fact that Obama will  be -- if his numbers stay anywhere near where they are right now -- a drag on his party at the ballot box this fall. According to Gallup, from 1944 through 2006 presidents with job approval ratings under 50 percent have seen their party lose an average of 36 House seats in midterm elections. That number is even higher when you consider that Obama's party lost 63 seats in the 2010 election (not included) in the chart below. Gallup's latest data puts Obama at 43 percent approval.

Image courtesy of Gallup
Image courtesy of Gallup

The simple fact is that presidents are always a factor in midterm elections -- particularly when they are unpopular. And that's bad news for Democrats trying to keep control in the Senate and stay within shouting distance of the majority in the House in November.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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