04/02/2012 09:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2012

Obama Poll Watch, March 2012

A Flat Month

President Obama had a fairly flat month of March in the polls. His approval rating slipped back half a point, and his disapproval rating stayed unchanged from last month. While his approval stayed above his disapproval for the month, the gap between the two is smaller than it's ever been. All month long he teetered back and forth in terms of being "above water" but showed signs of at least stabilizing by month's end. This brought an end to five straight months of good news in the polls for the president, the longest streak he's ever managed to post.

Let's take a look at the graph, although because things are so flat, it's a little hard to see:

Obama Approval -- March 2012

(Click on the graph to see larger-scale version.)

March 2012

March was mostly a month of Republican primaries, where the political punditry world was more interested in the GOP horse race than any other single story, for the most part. The month started off with Super Tuesday, and by month's end almost two dozen states and territories had voted. Although Mitt Romney continued to win roughly 55 percent of the delegates, the chattering classes kept up the hype that somehow it was still a race worth watching. This is likely to end in April, as it becomes more and more obvious -- even to the mathematically challenged -- that Romney will indeed be the Republican nominee.

In other political news, the Republican war on women continued to rage, although by month's end it had waned a bit in news coverage. The unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent, which likely influenced Obama's own flat polling. Mid-month we had a flurry of amusement over Mitt Romney's top aide branding Mitt in a way he probably wishes he could take back: the Etch A Sketch candidate. Other Republican candidates gleefully waved the bright red toys at campaign stops for weeks, and Ohio Art (the manufacturer) got more free advertising for their product than it has had in its entire half-century lifetime.

The price of gasoline was big news, as it marched upwards throughout March. Finally, toward the end of the month, prices eased off a bit, but this was likely the one determining factor in Obama's flat month in the polls, since it was the first time the gas price hikes influenced an entire month's worth of polling.

At the very end of the month, the Supreme Court took up the constitutionality of Obamacare's individual mandate, but this will only show up in the polling in April, so the jury's still out on whether the court's oral arguments will even register with the general public or not. This will likely emerge in the data in the next few weeks.

After gaining 4.8 percent from November through February, Obama's monthly average approval rate slipped back half a percent in March, to end up at 47.7 percent. His monthly average disapproval rate fell 4.0 points in the same November-February period but remained unchanged in March at 47.2 percent. This puts Obama's two averages closer than they have ever been, a positive gap of only 0.5 percent (down from 1.0 percent last month).

This was reflected in the daily averages all month long. Obama's daily approval rating hit a high of 49.2 percent after the first week of the month, a number he hasn't managed since last June. Even more impressively, if you discount the "bin Laden bounce" in the polls after the Pakistan raid, Obama hasn't managed to chart such a daily high since February 2011. In other words, he's doing better than he has done for the last year (ignoring the bin Laden exception). But this high point was likely an outlier effect in March, which was immediately countered by an outlier in the other direction as two polls came out with dismal approval ratings for Obama (41 and 46 percent), which threw off his daily averages for the entire middle of the month. For the rest of the month, Obama swung between a low of 46.6 percent and a high of 47.7 percent, while his disapproval numbers stayed in almost exactly the same range.

This led Obama's numbers to hold so close to each other that they crossed over between "above water" (net positive approval) to "below water" (net negative) a total of six times before the month was out. The last day of the month Obama was at 47.3-percent approval, and 47.5-percent disapproval, but this may have been a blip, since he had spent the previous week above water.

Overall Trends

The closeness of Obama's monthly approval and disapproval averages can be seen more clearly when we expand the chart to provide more detail.

Obama detail

(Click on the graph to see larger-scale version.)

After a long and gradual climb upwards, it's easy to see how Obama's numbers flattened out in March. He's in much better territory than he was six months ago, which is good news for his chances in the upcoming election, but his approval rating is still lower than it needs to be for the Obama team to relax about their chances. Hovering around 48 percent is much better than hovering between 43 and 44 percent, but it's still not quite good enough. The rule of thumb here is that presidents have a much better chance at reelection when their numbers are above 50 percent -- which is still two very long points away for Obama.

This has been Obama's problem for almost his entire presidency. Again discounting the bin Laden bounce, Obama hasn't charted a monthly approval rate above 50 percent since November 2009 (although, to be fair, he has gotten mighty close to doing so a couple of times). While gas prices seem to be easing off somewhat now, they will again spike at the beginning of the summer (as they always do). The public usually reacts in a sour way to higher prices at the pump -- especially if those prices break the all-time high records (which seems eminently possible after Memorial Day). This is going to hurt Obama, although he has been doing a pretty admirable job of making the case that "presidents can't change gas prices" in the media.

The countering effect may show up this Friday, as the March unemployment numbers are released. Last month, unemployment did not budge, which wasn't bad news but certainly also wasn't nearly as good as it could have been in the public's consciousness. If March's number falls (say, to 8.1 percent), that could do the president a world of good in the polls. If unemployment is below 8.0 percent by summer, this could counteract the negative response to higher gas prices.

The overall trend for Obama is flat right now. April starts with polling that will reflect the public's view of the Supreme Court arguments on Obamacare and then will be impacted by the unemployment figure next week. Congress is off for two weeks (nice work if you can get it, eh?), and Mitt Romney appears ready to dominate the month on the Republican primary side of things.

This means it is one of those months where it's anyone's guess what the trends will show. They could stay flat, they could trend down a bit more, or they could pick up steam for Obama once again. We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?

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Obama Poll Watch Data

Sources and methodology: is an admittedly amateur effort, but we do try to stay professional when it comes to revealing our sources and methodology. All our source data comes from, specifically from their daily presidential approval ratings "poll of polls" graphic page. We take their daily numbers, log them, and then average each month's data into a single number, which is then shown on our monthly charts here (a "poll of polls of polls," if you will). You can read a much more detailed explanation of our source data and methodology on our "About Obama Poll Watch" page, if you're interested.

Questions or comments? Use the "Email Chris" page to drop me a private note.

Column archives:

Obama's all-time statistics:


  • Highest monthly approval (February 2009): 63.4 percent

  • Lowest monthly approval (October 2011): 43.4 percent
  • Highest monthly disapproval (September 2011, October 2011): 51.2 percent
  • Lowest monthly disapproval (January 2009): 19.6 percent
  • Daily:

    • Highest daily approval (Feb. 15, 2009): 65.5 percent

  • Lowest daily approval (Oct. 9, 2011): 42.0 percent
  • Highest daily disapproval (Aug. 30, 2011): 53.2 percent
  • Lowest daily disapproval (Jan. 29, 2009): 19.3 percent
  • Obama's raw monthly data:

    (All-time high in bold, all-time low underlined)

    Month -- (Approval / Disapproval / Undecided)
    03/12 -- 47.7 / 47.2 / 5.1

    02/12 -- 48.2 / 47.2 / 4.6

    01/12 -- 46.3 / 48.3 / 5.4

    12/11 -- 45.1 / 49.5 / 5.4

    11/11 -- 44.4 / 50.2 / 5.4

    10/11 -- 43.4 / 51.2 / 5.4

    09/11 -- 43.5 / 51.2 / 5.3

    08/11 -- 43.8 / 50.7 / 5.5

    07/11 -- 46.2 / 47.8 / 6.0

    06/11 -- 48.5 / 46.0 / 5.5

    05/11 -- 51.4 / 43.1 / 5.5

    04/11 -- 46.4 / 48.2 / 5.4

    03/11 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5

    02/11 -- 49.4 / 44.5 / 6.1

    01/11 -- 48.5 / 45.7 / 5.8

    12/10 -- 45.5 / 48.1 / 6.4

    11/10 -- 45.5 / 49.0 / 5.5

    10/10 -- 45.5 / 49.1 / 5.4

    09/10 -- 45.7 / 49.7 / 4.6

    08/10 -- 45.3 / 49.5 / 5.2

    07/10 -- 46.6 / 47.4 / 6.0

    06/10 -- 47.6 / 46.7 / 5.7

    05/10 -- 48.1 / 45.5 / 6.4

    04/10 -- 47.8 / 46.5 / 5.7

    03/10 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5

    02/10 -- 47.9 / 46.1 / 6.0

    01/10 -- 49.2 / 45.3 / 5.5

    12/09 -- 49.4 / 44.9 / 5.7

    11/09 -- 51.1 / 43.5 / 5.4

    10/09 -- 52.2 / 41.9 / 5.9

    09/09 -- 52.7 / 42.0 / 5.3

    08/09 -- 52.8 / 40.8 / 6.4

    07/09 -- 56.4 / 38.1 / 5.5

    06/09 -- 59.8 / 33.6 / 6.6

    05/09 -- 61.4 / 31.6 / 7.0

    04/09 -- 61.0 / 30.8 / 8.2

    03/09 -- 60.9 / 29.9 / 9.2

    02/09 -- 63.4 / 24.4 / 12.2

    01/09 -- 63.1 / 19.6 / 17.3

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