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Poll Suggests Risks for Obama if Liberals Feel Taken for Granted

A new poll from Marist University is suggestive of a potential worst-case scenario for President Obama. As he endures criticism from his left over his handling of the tax policy debate with Republicans, his approval rating has declined among liberals, according to the poll: 69 percent of them now approve of his job performance as compared with 78 percent in November. Likewise, his approval rating has declined among Democrats: to 74 percent from 83 percent. However, there has been no comparable improvement in Mr. Obama’s standing among independents.

These data should be interpreted cautiously. The margin of error among liberal respondents, for instance — a relatively small group of about 165 interviewees — is around 7.5 percentage points, and it is about 5.5 percentage points among Democrats. It is probably worth waiting to see whether a similar trend is manifest in the Gallup tracking poll when Gallup updates its weekly trend data, since Gallup’s sample sizes are about three times larger, making analysis of trends among political subgroups much more reliable. (However, although Gallup has yet to break out its weekly results among individual demographic groups, Mr. Obama’s standing has declined somewhat over all respondents in the poll over the course of the past week.)

Moreover, as we’ve noted previously, liberal dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama may not translate into a willingness to vote against him in 2012. In the Marist poll, Mr. Obama won the support of between 78 and 85 percent of both liberals and Democrats against a group of three potential Republican presidential nominees: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee. Essentially, about half the liberals and half the Democrats who disapproved of Mr. Obama’s job performance in the poll were nevertheless unwilling to vote against him for re-election (at least provided that one of those three Republicans was his opponent).

Finally, the tax compromise was presumably not intended as a short-term political fix. One benefit to Mr. Obama, instead, could come in the medium term, as most economists expect the proposal to boost the economy over the next two years, at the expense of increasing long-term deficits.

Still, the poll outlines a blueprint for one potential downside case for Mr. Obama. If he moves toward the center in light of November’s election results and the impending Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, he will annoy liberals without winning himself much more support among independents — who may be waiting for clearer signs of economic recovery — or Republicans, whose dislike for him is probably too intractable at this point. Mr. Obama’s compromise initially won praise with a number of leading centrist political observers and pundits, but their opinions may carry less weight with the public than those of thought leaders toward either end of the political spectrum.

It may also be that the liberals’ issues are not with the substance of Mr. Obama’s policies — there has been no consensus among the House Democratic caucus or among liberal advocacy groups about what a realistic alternative to his tax compromise might look like, for instance — but rather with his modes of communication, which in recent days have been increasingly critical of liberals.

One theory of mine is that Mr. Obama — if one assumes that he is a liberal himself — sees less need to hedge his words when speaking to other liberals, in the same way that most of us tend to speak more bluntly to friends and family members than to relative strangers. But liberals — just like moderates and conservatives — formulate their impressions of the president based on a combination of intellectual and emotional factors, and their view of politics may not be so emotionally detached as Mr. Obama’s sometimes seems to be. And few voters of any kind would be pleased if it feels as though their support is being taken for granted.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.