Where Obama Is Losing Ground

The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press national survey released Wednesday joined a lengthening line of polls showing President Obama's approval rating sinking from its heights earlier this year back to levels closer to his actual vote in November 2008. In the election, Obama won 52.9 percent of the vote; Pew, echoing other recent findings, put his latest approval rating at 51 percent.

Like other surveys this summer (including the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll), Pew found Obama's numbers are weakest among groups that were skeptical of him last year, but appeared to be kicking the tires on him during the honeymoon stage of his presidency. Now those groups--particularly white men without a college education--are retreating rapidly amid the ideologically polarizing debates over health care, the stimulus and his administration's overall trajectory.

But Pew's new survey also records perceptible, if still generally modest, erosion among groups that were central to Obama's coalition last year--including young people, college-educated white women and even partisan Democrats. That is more worrisome for Obama, especially amid signs that the bruising combat over his health care plan is inflaming the conservative base. If conservatives are energized at the same time that Obama's core supporters are wavering, Democrats could face a withering differential in turnout during next year's election, many party strategists fear.

The chart below compares Obama's approval rating in the July and August Pew surveys with his vote last November, according to exit polls, among groups that supported him then and others that resisted him.

Supportive Groups    2008 share    7/09 App.    8/09App.    Change
College-educated                                                                            08-8/09
White women               52                    58                   53                +1
Hispanics                      67                    76*                 62                 -5
African-Americans      95                    85                   91                -4
Democrats                    89                    85                   82                -7
Independents               52                    48                   45                -7
75-100k families          51                    53                   43                -8
18-29                             66                    63                   59                -4

Resistant groups
White men                    39                    46                  35                -4
White men                    42                    48                  46               +4        
White women               41                    45                  44               +3
Age 65+                         45                    48                  47               +2
100k+families              49                    56                  45                -4

*Hispanic rating unavailable for July 2009 Pew survey; figure from Pew's June 2009 survey.
Sources: Edison/Mitofsky National Election Pool Exit Poll 2008; Pew Research Center for the People & The Press surveys July 22-26, 2009 and August 11-17, 2009.

As the health care debate has exploded this summer, Obama's ratings have declined the most among the group that was always the most skeptical of him--white men without a college education. At 35 percent, his approval rating among those men has now sunk below his performance with them last November, and converged with their meager support for the last two losing Democratic presidential nominees--Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Obama's numbers with the "waitress moms"--white women without a college education--are also slipping back toward his 2008 vote level, which was itself lower than the Democratic showing among them in three of the previous five presidential elections. Figures provided by Pew's Jocelyn Kiley show that from Obama's Pew highpoint in April, when his overall approval rating hit 63 percent, the president has dropped a daunting 12 percentage points among the waitress moms and 11 points among the non-college men.

This erosion among non-college whites could threaten Democrats in 2010, particularly across the Rustbelt states of the Midwest, if turnout among these voters remains strong. But over the long run, those voters are not central to Obama's coalition, in part because they have been reliably Republican in presidential elections since the 1980s, and partly because they are steadily declining as a share of the electorate.

More important to Obama are college-educated white voters, the key to his dramatic and decisive gains last year in suburban counties from Fairfax, Virginia to Arapahoe, Colorado. On this front, the picture is somewhat brighter for him: he maintains majority support among college-educated white women (who gave him 52 percent of their vote last year, matching the Democratic high in recent decades) and his approval rating among college-educated white men still exceeds his (admittedly lackluster) vote with them last year. But with both groups, he is moving in the wrong direction: Obama's approval rating among the upscale men dropped two points in the Pew survey from July to August, and his standing with the college-plus white women dropped a more ominous five percentage points. (Compared to his April Pew highpoint, Obama is down seven percentage points with college men, and eight with college women, so his decline hasn't been as steep as among the working-class whites.) Socially liberal and generally open to government activism, college-educated women are the Democrats' strongest remaining allies among whites; they are a group Obama really cannot afford to alienate.

The slippage among college-educated whites also helps explain Obama's troubles with independent voters, another more troublesome trend for him. All of the most recent national surveys have placed his approval rating among independents below 50 percent, although his positive ratings with them still generally exceed his negative marks.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey also released this week offers some insight into that decline. It found that just 31 percent of independents now approve of Obama's handling of health care, while 54 percent disapprove, according to crosstabs from the poll provided by Public Opinion Strategies, one of the pollsters. Asked their view of Obama's health care plan, just 28 percent of independents said they consider it a good idea, while 43 percent described it as a bad idea, and the rest said they didn't know.

Yet when the pollsters read a description of the Obama proposal to respondents, the attitude among independents sharply shifted. Opposition among them remained roughly the same at 44 percent. But support jumped to a 52 percent majority. The gap between potential and actual support for Obama's plan among independents suggests two things: that the White House is losing the struggle to define the plan so far, and that they may have room to increase their support if they can regain the initiative.

Obama faces a formidable gap between potential and actual support even among Democrats in the NBC/WSJ poll. Just 62 percent of Democrats described his plan as a good idea; but after hearing the explanation, 78 percent of them said they would support it. (Even among Republicans, support jumped from just 9 percent to 23 percent when they were provided a description of the plan.)

As the prospects for bipartisan agreement in the Senate fade, the need for Obama to unify Democrats will increase. Right now, though, he is losing Democrats from both wings of the party, even as independents soften and conservatives mobilize. Obama's ratings in the Pew survey declined slightly from July to August among moderate Democrats (down two percentage points) and sharply among liberal Democrats (down nine percentage points).

These poll numbers suggest that health care is becoming the classic issue that wounds a president: one that unites his opponents and divides his own side. Obama probably has little hope of changing the first half of that equation; when Congress returns he'll probably need to focus more on improving the second.