The Campaign Spot

What Fuels Obama’s ‘Favorability’ Numbers?

Over on the homepage, a look at what messaging from each party worked and didn’t work in the past three weeks, including a mild debunking of Obama’s much-discussed “favorability” numbers:

Resurgent Republic is a right-of-center research group founded by former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and pollster Whit Ares (Gillespie is now an adviser to Mitt Romney). The organization conducted 24 focus groups in battleground states among independents who voted for Obama in 2008, but who are not strongly committed to either candidate this cycle. Luke Frans, the executive director of Resurgent Republic, says the “favorability” discussion is a factor in the thinking of these voters, but it is overstated.

“Favorability is an important metric, but not necessarily vote-determinative,” Frans said. “President Obama had a net positive image in 2010, but that didn’t bail out Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats when voters went to the polls. His favorability is largely based on his being seen as an admirable family man, a good father and husband. That’s why you hear his detractors say Obama isn’t a bad person, just a bad president.”

But emphasizing that President Obama is a likeable guy is often a way for voters to mask their disapproval of his job performance, Frans argues. When Resurgent Republic’s focus-group leaders asked undecided voters to name something President Obama has done in office that they like, they gave him credit for trying, but they struggled to volunteer any domestic accomplishment and instead talked about his personal characteristics.

“Would a candidate rather have more voters like him than not? Sure. I just wouldn’t want this issue to be the sole crutch of a reelection bid,” Frans concluded.

“At the simplest level, people ‘like’ Obama because they see him as a trailblazer — identity politics is still a very powerful thing for many racial and ethnic minorities — who appears to have a good marriage and attractive children,” contends Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillon. “They may not approve of his job performance, but he is seen as a larger-than-life figure.”

It is worth noting that the polling on Obama’s “favorability” reveals quite a range from survey to survey. CNN’s most recent survey gave the president a strong split of 57 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable, but the Washington Post/ABC News survey put the president “underwater,” with a 47 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable split. For much of the year, Obama’s “favorable” number has been in the low 50s, with an unfavorable score in the high 40s — not exactly as robust as the conventional wisdom on his likability might suggest. However, since Obama’s job approval has been about even or slightly underwater for much of the year, it is indisputable that the president’s perceived personal warmth is helping keep his overall numbers afloat.


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