Gallup has tabulated approval ratings for President Obama over the course of its extensive polling in 2010 and there are a couple of surprises. For instance, Mr. Obama’s approval rating was 47.1 percent in Mississippi last year — several percentage points higher than it was in New Hampshire (41.3 percent).
Is Mr. Obama more likely to win Mississippi than New Hampshire in 2012? Almost assuredly not. Even though the sample sizes in the Gallup poll were reasonably large, it was inevitable that there would be a couple of statistical outliers, and these may be among them.
Nevertheless, the Gallup data hints at a couple of trends that are at least worth keeping an eye on. Although Mr. Obama probably won’t win Mississippi, his approval ratings are holding up comparatively well in the South. And although New Hampshire still figures to be competitive, his approval ratings have suffered more in some parts of New England.
The following table presents a comparison of Mr. Obama’s share of the presidential vote in 2008 to his 2010 approval rating according to Gallup. In eight states, Mr. Obama’s approval rating was higher than his percentage of the vote in 2008. Six of these states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas — were in the South. (The others were Alaska and Nebraska.) Meanwhile, the states where Mr. Obama suffered the steepest decline were New Hampshire and two states that it borders, Vermont and Maine.
You’ll also notice that some states are shaded in yellow in the table above. These are the 16 states in which the presidential campaigns were the most active in the latter half of 2008. The decline in Mr. Obama’s numbers was steeper in these swing states — 7.2 points, on average — as compared to 3.9 points in the less competitive states.
We can also take a look at this information on the map. First, here is the absolute change in Mr. Obama’s standing. States shaded in red are those in which his approval rating in 2010 was less than his share of the vote in 2008; the deeper the red color, the bigger the drop-off. States shaded in blue are those where his approval rating was better in 2010 than his tally at the polls in 2008:
Alternatively, we can look at the relative amount of change. Mr. Obama received 52.9 percent of the vote across the country in 2008; by comparison, his average Gallup approval rating was 46.9 percent over the course of 2010. That reflects a decline of 6 points. So in this version of the map, states where Mr. Obama’s standing declined by more than 6 points are shaded in red, and by fewer than 6 points in blue:
Even those of you who are data junkies might feel overwhelmed by this avalanche of information, so let’s do some unpacking.
First, the fact that Mr. Obama’s decline has been steeper in swing states is certainly noteworthy. And this, in fact, is a pattern that we’ve detected before: in last November’s elections, the decline in Democratic turnout was larger in states that had been key in the presidential derby in 2008.
This pattern is also fairly easy to explain: by virtually any objective or subjective measure, Mr. Obama’s turnout operations were much better than Senator John McCain’s in 2008. And those efforts, naturally, were concentrated in swing states. These states, then, saw a bigger drop-off in the absence of Mr. Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts.
The question is whether Mr. Obama will be able to replicate his turnout advantage in 2012 — or rather, whether the Republican nominee takes a page from George W. Bush’s campaign rather than from Mr. McCain’s and is able to keep pace with Mr. Obama’s turnout efforts. Throughout 2008, our simulation program suggested that Mr. Obama was more likely to win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote than the other way around — a reflection of the fact that he was overperforming in swing states. But that advantage could be mitigated or even reversed in 2012.
Second, although Democrats can’t be too thrilled about what has happened to them anywhere since 2008, they will have some interesting choices to make if Mr. Obama runs a couple of points stronger in the South, as his approval ratings suggest that he might.
There was some criticism, for instance, over the Democrats’ decision to hold their 2012 national convention in Charlotte, N.C., on the theory that Mr. Obama’s performance in that state in 2008 had been a fluke. In fact, based on Mr. Obama’s approval ratings, North Carolina looks like a very important state. The most crucial states in the electoral equation are essentially those where the polling is closest to the national average. In North Carolina in 2010, Mr. Obama’s approval rating was 46.9 percent — exactly the same, to the decimal point, that it was throughout the entire country.
But, while it is all but assured that Mr. Obama will again campaign vigorously in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, what about the other states in the South? Might there be any new swing states?
The most intriguing possibility is probably Georgia, where Mr. Obama’s approval rating was 45.5 percent in 2010 — just slightly below the national average. Compare Georgia, for instance, to Missouri: Mr. Obama lost the former by 5.2 percentage points in 2008, and the latter by 0.1 point. But Mr. Obama’s campaign heavily targeted Missouri, which it did not do for Georgia; that may have been worth several points. And Mr. Obama’s approval rating is now higher in Georgia than it is in Missouri. Depending on the identity of the Republican nominee and his or her geographic strengths, Georgia might be the better target for Mr. Obama.
Beyond that, there are a number of Southern states — South Carolina, Texas and even Mississippi — that Mr. Obama could plausibly take if he wins re-election in a blowout. But those states would almost certainly not give him the critical 270th electoral vote in an election that is otherwise competitive. So even if Mr. Obama wins a few more votes in those states, some of them could be wasted.
Nevertheless, it is intriguing to consider whether negative racial attitudes toward Mr. Obama — which may be a bigger factor in this region than in others — might be ameliorated even to a small extent by the fact that some white voters might grow more comfortable with Mr. Obama once he has been in office for four years.
Third, Mr. Obama probably has to worry about New Hampshire, and possibly also Maine. Not only has Mr. Obama’s approval rating declined significantly in those states, but Democrats also performed fairly poorly there (especially in New Hampshire) in the 2010 elections. And these states have more than their share of anti-establishment and libertarian-leaning voters, which could be rough on an incumbent who is perceived as a champion of big government.
Other states where Mr. Obama will need to be careful in 2012 might include Michigan and Indiana, where Mr. McCain’s campaign did not make much of an effort, potentially inflating Mr. Obama’s numbers. Although the decline in Mr. Obama’s approval rating has not been especially steep in these states, Democrats performed quite poorly in them in 2010. Wisconsin is also another state to watch, as should be apparent from the political fireworks there recently.
Keep in mind that these differences are very minor; over all, the correlation between Mr. Obama’s share of the vote in 2008 and his approval rating in 2010 was 0.93, which is very strong. And the differences will matter only if the popular vote margin winds up as less than a couple of points.
Nevertheless, to the extent that observers are engaging in speculation about how the electoral math might change in 2012, it is probably better if they do it based on relatively robust data like Gallup’s instead of anecdotal evidence.