The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t look now, but Barack Obama is suddenly popular

President Obama boards Air Force One on Oct. 16, 2012. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

When the ball dropped in Times Square on Jan. 1 of this year, more than half of the country disapproved of the job that President Obama was doing, according to Gallup. That boded poorly for the Democrats over the course of the year; presidential approval correlates to both how his party fares in the presidential race (even if he's not on the ticket) but also to the results of Senate races. An unpopular Obama suggested a less popular whoever-was-about-to-win-the-Democratic-nomination.

But over the course of the year, Obama's approval numbers changed -- quickly, and a lot. In Gallup's most recent weekly average, Obama is at 51-45 -- the exact opposite of where he was on Jan. 1 and a 12-point swing since then. He's been at 50 percent or higher in every week since March 1, save one.

We looked at this shortly after Obama first hit the 50 percent mark, noting that his approval had been climbing pretty steadily for a few months. At that point, we speculated that it was probably linked to the campaign; after all, the last time he was above 50 percent, he'd been propelled there by his own reelection.

Looking at quarterly averages of Obama's approval, you can see how stark the improvement has been by party. Democrats have slowly looked at Obama more favorably since the beginning of 2015, but independents have begun to look at Obama much more favorably. After a sharp slide following his reelection, independents turned their opinions of Obama around at the beginning of 2014. Over the past year, that's escalated. And since ratings from Democrats and Republicans are more stable, that shift by independents moves the needle a lot.

Gallup has data on a number of demographic groups, but those numbers tend to move around a lot. If we average group approval ratings for Obama over four-week intervals, we can get a better picture for which groups have seen the largest and smallest shifts toward Obama over the last year.

Among the groups that have seen the biggest increases in approval of Obama since last May are Hispanics, people under 30, women and people who identify their political ideology as "independent." (This isn't the same as those who identify their party as independent. It's on the liberal-conservative spectrum, not the Democrat-Republican one.) There's probably some overlap between those independent people and young people, since younger Americans are less likely to pick an ideological label. The increase among Hispanics may also be linked directly to the presidential election.

The groups that have moved toward Obama the least? College graduates, older people, weekly church-goers -- and black Americans. Blacks have consistently been among those most supportive of President Obama, so this, weirdly, is probably a function of not having much higher to actually go.

It's impossible to know what the future holds, of course, and the correlation between approval strength and outcome for the president's party demands data from much closer to the election. In an election where both of the likely major-party nominees are largely unpopular, though, a moderately popular incumbent will almost certainly do more good than harm.