Obama's Sinking Approval Could Drag Democrats Down With Him

The one solace for his party: Congress is even more unpopular than the president. 
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Larry Downing/Reuters

President Obama's approval rating remains ominously weak among the constituencies that could tip the battle for control of the Senate in November, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.

Obama's overall approval, standing at just 41 percent, remains near the lowest level ever recorded in the 20 Heartland Monitor Polls since April 2009. And only one in four adults say his actions are increasing economic opportunity for people like them, also among his worst showings in the polls. His numbers are especially meager among the non-college and older whites that dominate the electorate in the seven red-leaning states where Democrats must defend Senate seats in November. These findings are taken from the 20th quarterly Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll conducted by the Strategic Communications Practice of FTI Consulting.

The one solace for Democrats in the new poll is that Congress is even more unpopular than the president. Just 11 percent of those surveyed said they approved of Congress's performance, while 80 percent disapproved. In the five times the Heartland Monitor has tested Congress' rating since November 2012, only last November did it score more poorly, with just 9 percent approving and 84 percent disapproving.

Generally, though, attitudes toward the incumbent president have played a bigger role than views about Congress in shaping the results of midterm elections. And attitudes toward Obama, and the nation's direction, remain distinctly chilly.

Just 27 percent of those polled said they believed the country is moving in the right direction; 62 percent say they consider it off on the wrong track. That's slightly better than the results last fall, but much gloomier than the assessment around Obama's reelection in fall 2012. The racial gap on this question is huge: 41 percent of minorities say the country is moving in the right direction, but only about half as many whites (22 percent) agree. (Among whites without a college degree, just one in six see the country moving on the right track, only about half the level among whites with at least a four-year degree.)

In the new survey, 41 percent of adults said they approved of Obama's job performance while 52 percent disapproved. Since 2009, the quarterly Heartland Monitor Polls have recorded lower approval ratings for him only last November (at 38 percent) and last September (at 40 percent). The difference between those showings and the latest result falls within the survey's 3.1 percentage point margin of error.

In the latest poll, Obama also faces a formidable intensity gap that could foreshadow turnout challenges for Democrats: The share of adults who strongly disapprove of his performance (39 percent) is nearly double that of those who strongly approve (21 percent).

More troubling for Democrats still may be his especially precarious position with constituencies that loom large for the seven Democratic candidates trying to hold Senate seats in states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

In all of those states—Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia—older whites and whites without a four-year college degree represent a substantial share of the electorate. Whites overall represent a larger share of the vote than they do nationally in all of these states except for North Carolina and Louisiana.

Obama's national standing remains tenuous in the new Heartland Monitor Poll with the groups that are key in those states. Among whites overall, just 35 percent said they approve of his performance, while 59 percent disapprove. That's a slight improvement from the previous two Heartland Monitor Polls last fall, but still at the lower end of his range among whites since taking office. Obama faces an even larger 62 percent disapproval from both non-college whites and whites older than 50; only about one-third of each group approve of his performance.

His numbers look no better on a Heartland Monitor trend question that asks Americans how Obama's actions will affect their economic prospects. Just 25 percent of all respondents said they believed his agenda would increase opportunities for people like them. That's the smallest positive response the poll has recorded except for the two surveys last fall. In the new poll, a full 46 percent said they believed his actions would diminish their opportunities-essentially tying the 47 percent in each of last fall's polls as his worst showing on that measure. The remaining 23 percent said they did not think his actions would affect their opportunities.

Even these slim results are boosted by enduring confidence among minorities: 40 percent of non-white respondents said Obama's agenda would increase their opportunities, compared to 24 percent who believe it will reduce them. But among whites, just 19 percent say he is increasing their chances, while a resounding 55 percent say he is diminishing them.

Those numbers don't differ much among whites older and younger than 50 but they are especially bad among the blue-collar whites who matter so much in the red-leaning states where Democrats must defend Senate seats this year. Whites without a college degree were nearly four times as likely to say Obama's action are decreasing, rather than increasing, their opportunities to get ahead.

The Democratic red-state Senate incumbents facing voters this year in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina are demonstrating surprising resilience in polls. But the pervasive skepticism about Obama's performance and agenda among older and blue-collar whites remains a powerful headwind threatening their hold on those seats – and their party's hold over the Senate.


The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey is the 20th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. The poll was conducted April 9-13 with 1,000 respondents reached by landline and cell phones. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, Jeremy Ruch and Jocelyn Landau of the Strategic Communications Practice of FTI Consulting and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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