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Political Scientist Asks: Are Obama's Approval Ratings Better Than They Seem?

Thu, May 3, 2012 10:15pm

Story by Frank James


President Obama's voter-approval ratings certainly have been far from spectacular for much of his presidency, remaining mostly below 50 percent since November of 2009.

But on that dimension he may actually be doing better than it appears, at least based on some statistical modeling of presidential approval ratings conducted by George Washington University political scientist John Sides.

After examining presidencies going back to Dwight Eisenhower, and figuring out both the expected and actual voter-approval ratings for those White House occupants, Sides concluded that Obama is actually outperforming the favorability rating history would predict.

Sides wrote about this recently in the FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times web site.

"In fact, he is more popular than expected, and consistently so throughout these three years. His quarterly approval ratings are, on average, nine points higher than expected...

"... Only two other presidents have experienced a discrepancy between expected and actual approval in their first terms that was larger than the discrepancy in Mr. Obama's first three years. One was George W. Bush, and this arises largely because the model doesn't fully anticipate the quickness and size of the "rally effect" that took place after Sept. 11, 2001. The other was Ronald Reagan, whose first-term approval ratings exhibited more fluctuation than Mr. Obama's but were about 10 points above the model's expectations, on average."

Sides offers two reasons why Obama may be outperforming the expected approval rating his computer model predicts. Many voters find Obama's persona more appealing than media talking heads typically allow for.

The other reason is, even given the state of the economy, voters still don't blame the president, Sides says. The political scientist bases that conclusion on his reading of polling data. Sides has written about this on The Monkey Cage political-science blog for which he is a regular contributor.

It's an interesting hypothesis though, in the end, it's obviously less important for the president and his supporters that his actual approval rating exceeds some computer's prediction than it be strong enough to carry him past Mitt Romney and into a second term.

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