Has President Obama's approval really hit new low?

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests Democrats could face serious headwinds in the November midterm election. But it doesn't suggest things are getting worse for President Obama.

Aaron Favila/AP
President Barack Obama boards Air Force One during his departure from Manila, Philippines, Tuesday.

President Obama’s approval ratings are not good. For much of 2014 they have hovered in the low 40 percent range, which is a danger zone for the Democratic Party.

Soft presidential polls generally equal a poor performance in midterm elections for the president’s party, and given current poll numbers the question may not be whether the GOP will win control of the Senate, but by how much. Earlier this year pollster Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics wrote that given a 43 percent average presidential approval rating – about current levels – Republicans could hold as many as 54 or 55 Senate seats.

In that context, new Washington Post/ABC News poll results are more bad news for the White House. They show Obama’s approval dropping to 41 percent, a new low for this particular survey. In the issue-by-issue breakdown, only 42 percent of respondents said they approved of the way the president is handling the economy. Only 37 percent approve of the way he is handling health care. Thirty-four percent approve of the way he is dealing with the situation involving Russia and Ukraine.

Again, not a good omen for Democrats, particularly incumbent Democratic senators running in states won by Mitt Romney.

But these numbers do not show that Obama’s ratings are sliding, in our judgment. They do not reflect that his overall numbers have hit a new low, as some headlines suggest. It’s much more likely that the drop here represents a random variation around a generally low approval figure.

First, look at the Post/ABC trend line. In March, the poll had Obama’s approval rating at 46 percent – which is a bit high, compared with other surveys. Thus the new 41 percent approval might be something of a reversion to the statistical mean.

Second, it’s just one poll. You get a more accurate picture by averaging together a bunch of polls. Look at the RealClearPolitics average of major surveys: Obama’s approval rating is currently 43.3 percent, which is about where it has been since last November. The line graph of this is a squiggly but generally straight line. It doesn’t show a declining slope.

According to RCP, Obama did have a big drop in his approval rating late last year, hitting a low of 39.8 percent at the beginning of December. That was about the time the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act was getting a lot of coverage. Presidential approval has actually bounced back a bit since then, according to these figures.

Look, as we noted above, Obama’s numbers spell trouble for Democrats. It’s just that it does not yet look like there is a trend underway in his polling, one way or another.

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