In the parlor game to predict the magnitude of improvement in President Obama’s approval rating after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the weight of the evidence is with the skeptics so far.
The poll receiving the most attention is a Pew Research/Washington Post survey. It shows a 9-point improvement in Mr. Obama’s approval rating — to 55 percent from 46 percent — based on polling conducted yesterday.
Other polls show more marginal gains for Mr. Obama, however.
A CNN/Opinion Research survey shows Mr. Obama’s approval at 52 percent — up from just 1 point from polling conducted earlier in the weekend, and 4 points from a poll conducted in late April. A Daily Beast/Newsweek poll, conducted by Douglas E. Schoen, LLC, showed no improvement in his numbers, with his approval rating at 48 percent both before and after news of the killing. An automated poll by SurveyUSA has Mr. Obama’s approval rating at 46 percent, and one by InsiderAdvantage has it at 48 percent, although they provide no recent baseline for comparison.
On average across the five surveys conducted entirely since Bin Laden’s death, Mr. Obama’s approval rating is 50 percent, and his disapproval rating is 46 percent. By comparison, Mr. Obama’s numbers had been roughly the reverse of that — 45 percent approving, and 50 percent disapproving — based on polls conducted before Sunday night, according to the Pollster.com trendline.
The roughly five-point improvement would be low end of broadly similar historical events.
But now for the caveats.
First, Mr. Obama’s bounce might expand further — or it might contract — as voters have more time to process the news. Pollsters generally avoid conducting surveys over the course of just one day, which have lower response rates and less representative samples. And opinions might change as a result of further developments attendant to the news, like Mr. Obama’s scheduled visit to ground zero on Thursday.
Second, as I explained on Sunday night, the magnitude of Mr. Obama’s short-term bounce should not necessarily be taken as a proxy for its longer-term effects. Some events in the past that harmed the president in the long run nevertheless produced substantial improvement in his numbers in the short run, or vice versa.
Third, although the improvement in Mr. Obama’s topline numbers is modest, other figures in the polls are more favorable for him. Perceptions of his handling of the war in Afghanistan are very substantially improved, and perceptions of his overall leadership are somewhat so. The number of Americans who think the country is on the right track increased by 10 percentage points in the Washington Post survey. Mr. Obama may also look better by comparison to his opponents: although his approval rating did not improve in the Daily Beast survey, he went from being tied with Mitt Romney in a horse-race matchup to being ahead by six points.
Nevertheless, if the improvement in his approval ratings is limited to about five percentage points, you can color me a little bit surprised. I’d guessed on Twitter that Mr. Obama’s ratings might temporarily climb into the low-to-mid 60s. My readers predicted they would improve to 58 percent.
It’s reasonable to ask why Mr. Obama’s improvement isn’t larger. The explanation — with the advantage of hindsight — seems obvious enough.
Perceptions about Mr. Obama are quite deeply entrenched. Recent Washington Post polls have found that a majority of Americans either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of Mr. Obama’s performance. Voters have had an awful lot of news to weigh (especially on the economy) over the past two and a half years, against the background of an electorate that was highly partisan to begin with. Mr. Obama’s approval rating average has trended only within an extremely narrow range — between about 45 percent and 51 percent — over the past 18 months.
In other words, there is a lot of gravity for the president to overcome — for both positive and negative events. His base of Democratic support has been steadfast enough to keep his approval ratings in the 40s even at the worst of times. But skepticism among Republicans and some independent voters has been strong enough to prevent it from improving much beyond 50 percent even when things are going well for him.
The flip side to this is that the range between about 45 percent and 51 percent approval is an inflection point for a president’s chances at re-election. A president with a 51 percent approval rating would almost certainly win another term. A president with an approval rating of 45 percent very probably would not (although there might be some wiggle room for Mr. Obama in the event that an unpopular candidate like Sarah Palin was to be nominated).
Say that 1 percent of American voters who would otherwise not vote for Mr. Obama in November 2012 will now do so because of the successful mission against Bin Laden. In the grander scheme of things, this doesn’t matter much. But this election is quite likely to be close, provided the Republicans nominate a credible candidate. Even the slightest advantage for Mr. Obama could go a long way.