Obama Approval Stagnant at 43 Percent Despite Drop Among Independents


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Current poll data is likely to be used in shaping Obama’s 2012 campaign strategy. Image by Pete Souza

A Gallup poll released yesterday has President Obama’s overall job approval rating at 43 percent — the same number it’s been at since late October, according to Gallup. The president’s approval rating has not exceeded 43 percent since July, and it actually dipped to 40 percent in early October.

When the demographic was broken up by party affiliation, his approval rating dropped among all categories when compared to  his January 2011 rating.

The most noticeable shift was among moderate/liberal Republicans and Independents, with a difference of 8 and 10 points, respectively.  Obama’s overall approval rating among U.S. adults in January 2011 was 49 percent. Gallup states that a comparison of current approval ratings to those recorded in January is significant, because incumbent presidents have not historically been re-elected with approval ratings below 49 percent the year prior to the election. Whether Obama’s approval stays flat-lined, rises, or declines, his numbers may begin to influence re-election predictions within the coming months.

Obama Approval Poll Methodology

The Gallup poll was conducted between November 21 and November 27, with no interviews being conducted on November 24. Respondents consisted of 2978 adults residing in the U.S., who were contacted via random dialing of cell phones, and random selection from listed landlines. Interviewers were able to conduct the poll in Spanish. There was a minimum quota of 800 cell phone users and 1200 landline users for this poll. Weighting was used to account for unlisted phone numbers and multiple adults in households, as well as demographic information including gender, age, race, region and education. The margin of error is +/-2 points.

Is the Party Affiliation Data Significant?

Among party affiliations, Independents are the most difficult to understand via polling. Photo credit: acvoters.org

The poll release concludes that for Obama to get his approval rating where it needs to be for re-election, he needs to focus on winning moderate Republicans and Independents, since these are the two groups with which he has lost the most ground since January. Gallup states that those who have most recently given up on a candidate are the easiest to win back. The Gallup poll goes on to state that Obama’s safest target at this point is likely those on the center-right of the political spectrum.

Flaws in the Gallup Presidential Approval Poll

While this determination is based on scientific poll data, there are several flaws with the presented conclusion, one of which is that party affiliation is not constant, and is in fact very flux, especially in a divisive political climate. This is why the NCPP does not recommend that pollsters weight based on respondents’ stated party affiliation.

Additionally, it cannot be assumed that all, or even the majority of, self-described Independents are moderate conservatives, or that they lean any which way politically. A Pew Research poll conducted in May 2011 surveyed Independents to determine their ideological makeup. The results indicated that this is a highly fragmented group, and many who compose it cannot be grouped by “liberal” or “conservative.”  Those who call themselves “Independent” may include individuals who are so far to the left or right that they do not consider themselves Republican or Democrat, but many others in this group are either politically disengaged, or they shift between left and right depending on the issue. Others who self-identify as Independent may also identify as “liberal” or “conservative” depending on their personal situations at the time the survey is delivered. Whether Obama moves to the right, as the Gallup poll suggests he should, or moves to the left, he will not be able to win over large majorities of Independents, because they do not have similar values and opinions.

It is also possible that more moderate Democrats and hard-left Democrats are respectively switching their categorizations to “moderate Republican” and “Independent” due to dissatisfaction with Obama, thus the lower general approval rating, and the rapid increase in disapproval among these party affiliations. While attempting to woo the center-right may succeed in winning back the moderates, there may be a block of Independents who want Obama to move further to the left.

Interpreting the Obama Approval Poll Results

According to aggregate data gathered by RealClearPolitics, the overall approval rating data is on target with cumulative polling numbers.  While Gallup used past election data to form the hypothesis that no incumbent with an approval rating of less than 49 percent in the year prior to the election will be re-elected, it is important to remember that presidential elections only occur every four years, and not all presidential elections include an incumbent candidate. Since polling processes have evolved over time, there is not an overwhelming amount of data available to support this hypothesis, but it is becoming more credible as each presidential election occurs.

The conclusion that Obama might strengthen his approval rating by wooing center-right individuals may or may not be tested depending on the strategy the president adopts as campaign season approaches. Due to the inherent problems with gathering poll data based on stated party affiliation, it is difficult to determine whether Obama has more to gain by moving to the right or left. The poll results also leave out the possibility that he may benefit from shifting left on some issues and right on others. A change from his current approach is likely warranted, as his approval rating has been relatively immobile for the past month, as observed in several polls.


Gallup. Obama Approval Remains at 43 Percent Through Thanksgiving Week. Accessed November 29, 2011.

Pew Research Center for the People and Press. Beyond Red and Blue: The Political Typology. Accessed November 29, 2011.

RealClearPolitics. President Obama Job Approval. Accessed November 29, 2011

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