[Program Note: Regular readers may be scratching their heads over one of two things when they see this article today: "Where's the Friday Talking Points column, Chris?" and/or "Why are you running the Obama Poll Watch column for May when there are still four days left in the month?" The answer to both of these questions is the same: because I'm about to go on vacation. See the note I've posted on my site for full details. In a nutshell, Friday Talking Points will be on hiatus until 6/10/11, and then skip another week after that, until it returns to regular service on 6/24/11. My apologies for the interruption in our regular schedule.]
Obama's Best Month Ever
Due to this column's premature nature, I just have to state up front that the numbers we're using this month are preliminary. There are still four days left in the calendar month, which could cause the numbers discussed here to change slightly when the polling data is in. Any changes should be minor, and will be properly adjusted in next month's column. But the trendlines for May are so solid, at this point, that the final numbers should be very close to where we're going to peg them today. Just wanted to get that big caveat out of the way before we begin.
This month was the best month President Barack Obama has ever had in the polls, when measured as change over the previous month. If you count it one way (measured by absolute values) Obama's best month was technically the second month into his term -- when he was still enjoying his "honeymoon" period, and had 63.4 percent support from the public. But in terms of actually changing public opinion, May was indeed the best month Obama's had, by far.
There's a simple reason for this, of course, which might be labeled: "What a difference a death makes." President Obama announced at the very beginning of the month that Osama Bin Laden was dead, and his poll numbers reacted almost immediately. For simplicity's sake here, we're going to call this his "OBL bounce."
This OBL bounce was the biggest bump Obama has yet experienced in his poll numbers. It reversed the last few months' downward trend in his numbers, and gained back all the ground Obama has lost since November of 2009 -- a full eighteen months' worth. Obama enjoyed both the biggest upward bounce in his job approval average for the month, as well as the biggest downward slide in his job disapproval average.
Let's take a look at the chart:
[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]
May's news was dominated by one gigantic victory for Obama at the very start of the month -- killing Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Gas prices abated somewhat during the month, which also may have had a secondary effect on the president's standing with the public. Various natural catastrophes happened during the month as well, but didn't affect Obama's job ratings at all, or only very slightly. Most of the political news, after the Bin Laden death story, was focused around the Republicans who decided to jump both in and out of the 2012 nomination race. While the media began the month obsessed with Donald Trump (for some inexplicable reason), this sideshow quickly faded as more serious Republican candidates decided to run, or dropped out altogether. So far, this list of candidates isn't all that impressive, which may have helped Obama's standings slightly as well. But, truth be told, the OBL bounce was the primary mover of Obama's poll numbers in May.
The big unanswered question is, of course: "Will the OBL bounce last?" So far, it shows no real signs of abating. After the initial spike upwards at the beginning of the month, Obama's numbers have stayed fairly steady ever since, and have in fact trended a bit upwards throughout the month. Professional poll watchers have been warning that the bounce would only be around ten points, and only last approximately a month, so perhaps next month will answer this question.
Obama's approval numbers for the month averaged out to 51.4 percent -- a jump of exactly five points. To put this in perspective, Obama has only had one other month (January of this year) where his approval number rose more than one percent (a 3.0 percent rise) in a single month's time. In fact, this is the steepest his approval line has ever moved in either direction, as the largest drop Obama's ever charted in approval was 3.6 percent, back in August of 2009.
Obama's disapproval numbers fell even faster, to end up the month at 43.1 percent -- 5.1 points down from last month. This is more than twice as big as his second-biggest monthly drop, back in January of this year when his disapproval fell 2.4 percent. May falls just short of the most extreme change ever in Obama's disapproval in either direction, in March of 2009 (as the "honeymoon" period was ending), when Obama dropped 5.5 percent in one month.
For the first time in eighteen months -- since November of 2009 -- Obama's approval rose above the crucial 50 percent mark. It was also the first time since then his disapproval number was lower than 44 percent. In fact, Obama's numbers for May were slightly better than eighteen months ago, by 0.3 points in approval and 0.4 points in disapproval.
That's a respectable bounce, by any measure. The question going forward is whether Obama can hang onto at least some of the ground he gained this month.
Which brings us to the trendlines. Because of the unique nature of the OBL bounce, it is almost impossible to predict which way things will trend next month. The public's memory fades fast, so we'll see whether this was just an aberrant spike in Obama's numbers, or whether it represents a solid change in direction for him as we get closer to re-election season.
At the end of April, things weren't looking all that good for Obama's poll numbers. His monthly numbers were trending decidedly downwards, and his daily numbers reflected that, right up to just before the end of the month. On April 28, Obama's daily approval poll average was still a full three points lower than his disapproval (45.9/48.9). But a funny thing was happening even before the Bin Laden news broke -- Obama's numbers were getting noticeably better already. By the first of May, his numbers were only one point apart, although disapproval was still beating approval (46.7/47.7). But the day the news broke, the numbers -- which had not been influenced by the news yet (in other words, these numbers were posted before the announcement) -- had closed to only two-tenths of a point's difference (47.0/47.2). Essentially, by the time Obama announced the death of Bin Laden, he was running exactly even in the polls -- which was a noticeable improvement. This little mini-trend may have just been a normal day-to-day fluctuation, or it may have been the harbinger of numbers which would have improved even if Bin Laden hadn't been successfully killed by SEAL Team Six. We'll never really know, at this point.
Since the news broke, of course, the spike was both immediate and significant. By the fourth of the month, Obama had hit 51.0 percent approval, and he never fell below this for the rest of the month. His approval rating hit a daily high of 52.6 percent this Wednesday, on a slow but gradual climb all month long. Obama's daily disapproval numbers reacted faster, bottomed out, and then have only slightly fluctuated since. By the fourth of the month, it was down to 43.1 percent, then went down to a low of 42.0 percent by the ninth of May. Since then, it has fluctuated between these two numbers.
Getting back to the monthly numbers, let's take a more detailed look at the last year and a half:
[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]
That's a pretty dramatic bounce, when seen in close-up.
But before we get to drawing any kind of conclusions, there are two technical points which should be addressed. The first is that on May 9, there was what is called an "outlier" poll by the Associated Press/GfK which put Obama's approval at a stratospheric 60 percent. This poll is about to drop off the rolling average used by RealClearPolitics.com (where we get our data), which could have a downward effect on Obama's numbers as he begins June.
The second point worth discussing is the "size" of Obama's OBL bounce. I've always had a problem with media folks measuring absolute size of the difference between approval and disapproval polling, because the way most of them do it actually doubles the true effect. To understand this, assume a politician had a perfectly-balanced 50-50 rating. Then he gets a bounce, up to 52-48. Almost everyone reports this as a "four-point bounce," when in reality only two percent of the people have changed their minds. Because the two percent moves from one column into the other, it winds up essentially getting counted twice. This month, Obama's approval numbers went up by five percent, and his disapproval went down by almost exactly the same five percent. You can call this a "ten-point bounce" if you'd like, but when you stop and think about it with a sense of perspective, it's easy to see that the true shift was only five points. This has long been a personal bugaboo of mine, so I thought I'd bring it up to be fair about the "size" of Obama's bounce.
With that out of the way, let's look at where the trendlines could go for Obama next month. There are three basic scenarios: optimistic, pessimistic, and middle-of-the-road.
We'll start with the rosiest scenario first -- Obama optimism. Both of these first two require you to discount (or ignore) certain data, I should mention. Obama optimists will be ignoring March and April. Take a look at that detail chart. Take your hand, or a piece of paper, and block out March and April (the recent downward spike). What's interesting is that if you discount these two months, Obama's May numbers (this works equally as well with either the approval or disapproval lines) are exactly where they should be if the December-January-February trendline had continued. Remaining optimistic, June can be easily projected using this trend. Obama's approval will actually rise further in June, and should top out over 52 percent. Obama's disapproval will likewise continue to fall, to wind up between 42 and 43 percent.
Obama pessimists, however, will insist that the OBL bounce is nothing more than a temporary "rally 'round the president" effect, and that such spikes historically almost never last -- in fact, they usually return right back down to where they started, within as short a time as one month. Once the glow of the bounce wears off, in other words, the American public will be focusing on the main political issues which existed before the bounce happened. Under this scenario, Obama's approval will fall back to around the 46-48 percent range, and his disapproval will go right back up to 47 or 48 percent.
The truth will likely be somewhere between these two extremes. Obama's OBL spike may fall back a bit, but Obama may also hold some of the ground he gained during the bounce. Perhaps Obama falls back to roughly where he was in February -- around 49 percent approval, and 44-45 percent disapproval. To put it another way, Obama may hold onto the ground he lost in March and April, but not show any real gains over where he was in February. This really wouldn't be all that bad an outcome for the president.
So take your pick among the range of possibilities, and join us again next month as we see what really happened (and, as stated, where we will adjust the May numbers to add in the final days of the month). Until then, happy poll-watching to all!
[Obama Poll Watch Data:]
Sources And Methodology
ObamaPollWatch.com is an admittedly amateur effort, but we do try to stay professional when it comes to revealing our sources and methodology. All our source data comes from RealClearPolitics.com; specifically from their daily presidential approval ratings "poll of polls" graphic page. We take their daily numbers, log them, and then average each month's data into a single number -- which is then shown on our monthly charts here (a "poll of polls of polls," if you will...). You can read a much more detailed explanation of our source data and methodology on our "About Obama Poll Watch" page, if you're interested.
Questions or comments? Use the Email Chris page to drop me a private note.
[Apr 11], [Mar 11], [Feb 11], [Jan 11], [Dec 10], [Nov 10], [Oct 10], [Sep 10], [Aug 10], [Jul 10], [Jun 10], [May 10], [Apr 10], [Mar 10], [Feb 10], [Jan 10], [Dec 09], [Nov 09], [Oct 09], [Sep 09], [Aug 09], [Jul 09], [Jun 09], [May 09], [Apr 09], [Mar 09]
Obama's All-Time Statistics
Highest Monthly Approval -- 2/09 -- 63.4%
Lowest Monthly Approval -- 8/10 -- 45.3%
Highest Monthly Disapproval -- 9/10 -- 49.7%
Lowest Monthly Disapproval -- 1/09 -- 19.6%
Highest Daily Approval -- 2/15/09 -- 65.5%
Lowest Daily Approval -- 10/17/10 -- 44.2%
Highest Daily Disapproval -- 9/26/10 -- 51.2%
Lowest Daily Disapproval -- 1/29/09 -- 19.3%
Obama's Raw Monthly Data
[All-time high in bold, all-time low underlined.]
Month -- (Approval / Disapproval / Undecided)
05/11 -- (51.4 / 43.1 / 5.5) (preliminary figures)
04/11 -- 46.4 / 48.2 / 5.4
03/11 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5
02/11 -- 49.4 / 44.5 / 6.1
01/11 -- 48.5 / 45.7 / 5.8
12/10 -- 45.5 / 48.1 / 6.4
11/10 -- 45.5 / 49.0 / 5.5
10/10 -- 45.5 / 49.1 / 5.4
09/10 -- 45.7 / 49.7 / 4.6
08/10 -- 45.3 / 49.5 / 5.2
07/10 -- 46.6 / 47.4 / 6.0
06/10 -- 47.6 / 46.7 / 5.7
05/10 -- 48.1 / 45.5 / 6.4
04/10 -- 47.8 / 46.5 / 5.7
03/10 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5
02/10 -- 47.9 / 46.1 / 6.0
01/10 -- 49.2 / 45.3 / 5.5
12/09 -- 49.4 / 44.9 / 5.7
11/09 -- 51.1 / 43.5 / 5.4
10/09 -- 52.2 / 41.9 / 5.9
09/09 -- 52.7 / 42.0 / 5.3
08/09 -- 52.8 / 40.8 / 6.4
07/09 -- 56.4 / 38.1 / 5.5
06/09 -- 59.8 / 33.6 / 6.6
05/09 -- 61.4 / 31.6 / 7.0
04/09 -- 61.0 / 30.8 / 8.2
03/09 -- 60.9 / 29.9 / 9.2
02/09 -- 63.4 / 24.4 / 12.2
01/09 -- 63.1 / 19.6 / 17.3
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant