Tuesday, March 13, 2012

With Obama's Ratings Falling, Administration Could Face Defeat in November

March 12, 2012

Obama’s Rating Falls as Poll Reflects Volatility

New York Times

Despite improving job growth and an extended Republican primary fight dividing his would-be opponents, President Obama is heading into the general election season on treacherous political ground, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

At a time of rising gas prices, heightened talk of war with Iran and setbacks in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s approval rating dropped substantially in recent weeks, the poll found, with 41 percent of respondents expressing approval of the job he is doing and 47 percent saying they disapprove — a dangerous position for any incumbent seeking re-election.

The poll provides a statistical reminder of how unsettled and unpredictable this year’s political landscape remains. Just one month ago, Mr. Obama reached a critical benchmark by winning approval from 50 percent of Times/CBS News poll respondents, his re-election prospects lifting along with confidence that the nation was finally emerging from the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Mr. Obama’s approval numbers measure his performance against expectations. But elections are choices between candidates, and on that score, he showed greater resilience in the poll.

In a hypothetical matchup against his most likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama had a 47 percent to 44 percent advantage, a statistical dead heat given the poll’s margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points. Against Rick Santorum, the president drew 48 percent compared with 44 percent. In both cases, the difference between the candidates was slightly smaller than it was last month.

In the head-to-head matchups, Mr. Obama also maintained much of the advantage he had built in the last year among important constituencies, including women, although he lost some support among women over the past month, even as the debate raged over birth control insurance coverage.

Americans are still expressing confidence that the economy is staying the same or getting better, with those who believe that outnumbering those who view the economy as getting worse by nearly three to one. (Then again, 75 percent view the nation’s financial picture as “fairly bad” or “very bad.”)

Mr. Obama appears to be retaining much of his gains among important demographic groups, erasing inroads that Republicans made in 2010, especially among women. But his falling approval rating in the last month extended to his handling of both the economy and foreign policy, the poll found. And his weakening position cut across all major demographic groups, even among those with which he has kept an edge over his Republican challengers: independents, moderates, college graduates and younger voters.

Sharp as the drop in Mr. Obama’s approval rating was in the Times/CBS News poll, it was not in isolation. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, released on Monday, also reported a drop in Mr. Obama’s overall approval rating, to 46 percent from 50 percent last month. The latest tracking poll from Gallup, also released Monday, showed Mr. Obama with an approval rating of 49 percent.

Yet, polls capture only a particular moment in time, and can be influenced by the way questions are asked or the mix of people who are surveyed. In The Times/CBS News poll, the margin of sampling error could mean the president’s approval rating is as high as 44 percent or as low as 38 percent, at a 95 percent confidence level. The telephone poll was conducted March 7 to 11 with 1,009 adults nationwide.

Mr. Obama’s aides have expressed concern for weeks that rising gas and fuel prices and outside forces like the turmoil overseas or a spike in unemployment could harm his political standing.

The decline in Mr. Obama’s approval rating has occurred as Americans are confronted by rising gas prices on filling station billboards and the evening news. Republican presidential candidates have sometimes tried to connect the price increases to the Obama administration’s approach to Iran.

Mr. Obama’s drop was particularly pronounced among low-income households that may be feeling the pinch of the higher gas prices — as well as increases in prices for groceries and some retail items — more than others.

Over all, 54 percent of poll respondents believed that a president can do a lot to control gas prices, as opposed to 36 percent who believe they are beyond a president’s control.

“I think just being the president of the United States of America, you would have some type of control over gas pricing,” said Jamie Haber, 39, an independent voter of Orlando, who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but says he will not this year. “We’re out here doing everything we can to make a living, and gas prices keep going up,” he said in a follow-up interview.

While the Republican candidates for president have for the most part been united in their criticism of Mr. Obama over his handling of Iran, the public is more or less evenly divided on his approach, the poll found, with 42 percent approving and 39 percent disapproving.

The public is similarly split on what the United States should do if Israel seeks to force an end to Iran’s nuclear program through a military attack. Almost half, or 47 percent, said the United States should support such an attack, while 42 percent said it should stay out of any conflict.

In spite of a considerable dip in approval for Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign affairs — to 40 percent from 50 percent a month ago — nearly 58 percent said they were somewhat or very confident in his ability as commander in chief, giving him an edge over his Republican rivals.

In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Santorum was supported by 34 percent of Republican primary voters and Mr. Romney by 30 percent, a difference that is within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus 6 percentage points for that group. Newt Gingrich was supported by 13 percent, and Ron Paul’s support dropped to 8 percent.

As the primary race shifts once again to the South, where Mr. Romney has had trouble, Republican primary voters in the survey continue to view him as having the best chance to beat Mr. Obama in the fall, by far.

On the economy, however, nearly three-quarters said they were somewhat or very confident in either Mr. Romney’s or Mr. Santorum’s ability to make the right decisions. And while more than a third of Republican voters said Mr. Romney was “not conservative” enough, only 11 percent said that about Mr. Santorum; 70 percent said his views on most issues are “about right.” Mr. Santorum also led 41 to 27 percent over Mr. Romney among women, while men were more evenly divided.

In recent weeks, there has been much debate over the government’s role in guaranteeing insurance coverage for contraception, including for those who work for religious organizations. The poll found that women were split as to whether health insurance plans should cover the costs of birth control and whether employers with religious objections should be able to opt out.

Allison Kopicki, Marina Stefan and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.

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