Is Obama Unpopular, or Have the Polls Gone Crazy?

Polling on the president has been a little weird lately. According to yesterday’s The Washington Post/CBS News poll, 46 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s performance, while 50 percent disapprove. This is on the lower bound of polling for the president, but well within the range we’ve seen over the last several months. Likewise, over the weekend, Gallup found that Obama’s approval rating rose to 49 percent—mostly on the strength of last week’s job report, which saw the economy grow by 227,000 jobs.

The New York Times and CBS News registered the most dramatic change in Obama’s standing with the public. In its poll, released yesterday, Obama’s approval rating dipped to 41 percent, the lowest since last summer, when the debt ceiling debacle damaged his standing with Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Jonathan Bernstein says that this is all statistical noise, while Jonathan Chait insists that there is something here; namely, that President Obama’s message—“America is coming back”—is horribly unpopular with the public at large. Looking at all three of the polls, and the New York Times' in particular, I’m inclined to go in Bernstein’s direction with sampling as the culprit.

Between yesterday’s poll and the one in February—where Obama’s approval rating was 50 percent—the New York Times and CBS News increased the proportion of Republican voters by more than 2 percent, and sampled nearly 18 percent more GOP primary voters than they did Democratic primary voters.

There are signs of this throughout the survey. In the February poll, Republicans and Democrats were equally enthusiastic about voting in November, with 38 percent who said that they were more enthusiastic than usual. By contrast, the “more enthusiastic” numbers went up to 40 percent for Republicans went up to 40, while they declined to 29 percent for Democrats.

It’s possible that his represents a genuine change in enthusiasm between the two groups, but given the extent to which Democrats were hugely energized by the battles over contraception in the last month—which would suggest parity of enthusiasm, if not a slight Democratic advantage—I’m more willing to say that this variation is the result of sampling, and Republican partisans were sampled at a greater rate than their liberal counterparts. Otherwise, you’d have to say that Democrats were more enthusiastic at the beginning of February than at the beginning of March, and that doesn’t seem right. Likewise, the Washington Post poll, the percentage of respondents who identified as Republican grew from 23 percent in February to 27 percent in March, while the percentage of those identifying as Democrats declined from 34 percent to 31 percent.

None of this is to say that the president is in safe waters; as I argued yesterday, the electorate is closely divided, and at this point, Obama is just as likely to lose as he is to win. What’s more, I don’t know why the New York Times and the Washington Post increased their sample of Republicans; it’s possible that this is actually a more accurate account of where the population stands. For my part, I think things are probably unchanged from where they were last week. Regardless, before using polls to make a broad pronouncement about where the public is moving, it’s useful to check out the polls themselves.