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Barack Obama’s Low Ceiling

In his column today, the ever-optimistic E. J. Dionne makes the absurd claim that “If the election were held right now, President Barack Obama would likely win by about the same margin that propelled him into office in 2008.” Today, coincidentally, Scott Rasmussen, the only pollster, to my knowledge, who is sampling likely voters this early in the cycle, found Mitt Romney leading Obama 45-43, while Ron Paul also leads Obama by a nearly identical 43-41. Trailing Ron Paul among likely voters is not where Obama wanted to be in his fourth year in office.

Polling can be volatile at this stage of the cycle, and many polls are so poorly conducted as to be worthless. To see why I think President Obama is in a deep hole, consider this chart, showing Obama’s Approval Index from his inauguration to the present. We have noted the Approval Index a number of times over the past several years; it represents the difference between those likely voters who say they “strongly approve” of the president’s performance and those who say they “strongly disapprove.”

Obama’s Approval Index went negative in the summer of 2009 and has been negative ever since. For two and a half years, a plurality of likely voters have said that they strongly disapprove of Obama’s performance in office. Since the summer of 2009, those who strongly disapprove have numbered between 35% and 45% of respondents. At the moment, 42% strongly disapprove. In recent months, the number of those who say they strongly approve of the president has been creeping up, but that group has not exceeded 30% in more than a year.

It is obvious from this history, I think, that Obama’s Approval Index will remain negative through the election in November. The killing of Osama bin Laden produced barely a blip in the overall trend. This is why I disagree with those who argue that a modest uptick in the economy could produce a second term for Obama. The large plurality of the voting population who have been convinced that Obama is doing a lousy job for the past two and a half years are not going to change their minds and vote to re-elect him because unemployment drops to 7.8%, or the price of a gallon of gasoline drops to only $1.50 more than when Obama was inaugurated.

So come November, it is virtually certain that those who fervently want Obama evicted from office will outnumber those who fervently want him to be re-elected by a substantial margin. Thus far, the Approval Index has been a leading indicator for Obama’s overall approval rating, which suggests that by November, most of those in the middle are likely to swing away from the president–which is how the experts tell us undecided voters generally break. We can’t rule out the possibility that Obama could eke out a victory by doing extraordinarily well among the voters who are still up for grabs, but with a solid plurality committed to his defeat, that will be an uphill battle at best.

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