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Scott de Marchi Headshot
James T. Hamilton Headshot

Who's Likely to Stick with Obama?

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If President Obama were a product, what would it mean to be loyal to him? His job approval rating went from 62% in the second quarter of 2009 to 53% in the third quarter, a 9-point drop that ranks as the steepest reported decline for a newly elected President.

A year ago "Yes We Can" and "Hope" were familiar signs and slogans . To see who's abandoning their support for Obama now, pollsters often ask how voters feel about the state of the economy or the health care debate. To really understand who's likely to support the President, however, you may have better luck if you look at how they shop, drive, and eat.

In choosing what to buy or believe, you face choices about happiness now or in the future, the possibility of a bad outcome, or whether your choice somehow affects others. In deciding what to consume or what cause to support, you can make decisions by gathering a lot of information, looking to others for guidance, or simply deciding to go with what you've always done before.

We call the way people approach decision-making their TRAITS, an acronym for Time, Risk, Altruism, Information, meToo, and Stickiness. In our research, we use decisions people make every day to measure their decision-making approaches.

We measure a taste for Risk by studying whether a person gambles, smokes, drives fast, or plays risky sports. People score high on our Information measure by buying more books, consulting more sources for financial information, and searching out news on the web and cable. Rating whether a person is high on meToo depends on the degree they look to the brand and product decisions of others and are part of a large network of friends. A person's Stickiness rating depends on factors such as the number of cars they considered when shopping, how many fast food or casual dining restaurants they go to, and the number of different cuisines they eat.

Our TRAITS measures let us use how people make decisions on the road or in the supermarket to predict how they react in the voting booth or in political conversations.

Being a fan of a political party is like being a fan in sports or music: you're consuming an identity, expressing an idea, and belonging to a team. Major party fans are easy to spot in their lives as neighbors or shoppers. They're altruistic, enjoy information, show a sense of belonging, and are stickier than most people in their product choices.

Political independents are also easy to spot. They are high on risk, so they're willing to consider new ideas and politicians. They don't show much loyalty in the market, and are willing to shop around for cars and cuisines. They don't look much to the decisions of others for reassurance. They also like to gather lots of information from many sources, and tend to focus on the future when they're making choices.

When we studied changes in President Bush's job approval rating between 2004 and 2005, we found that political fans predictably stuck with their teams. Republicans continued to rate the President much more highly than Democrats, and Independents were somewhere in between in their evaluations. Yet we also found that how people made their purchasing decisions affected the degree that they stuck with the Bush II presidency. In 2005,as news and events went considerably against the President, people who scored high on Information were more likely to express much more dissatisfaction with the President. In 2004, whether someone was focused on today or tomorrow had no impact on President Bush's approval rating. Yet in 2005, a higher concern for the future meant lower numbers for Bush.

Stickiness inclined people to stay with President Bush. To see this, we divided Republicans and Democrats by their Stickiness scores. Republicans who were stickier in the consumer market were more likely to rate Bush favorably in 2005. Democrats who tended to stick with the same products were also more likely to rate Bush favorably. Even though they were from the opposition party, these Democrats stuck with the status quo and stood by the president.

President Bush and President Obama are very different politicians, and support very different policies. Yet people's view about each president's job performance is driven by the TRAITS they reveal as consumers. Major political fans, the people who declare a party identity, will continue to pull for their man. People who are willing to take risks, change their mind, gather information, and care about the community are political independents and more likely to have reactions in between Democrats and Republicans.

A strong predictor of how your friends will react to President Obama depends on two factors, whether they're loyal to products and whether they like information. If the news and events are favorable to President Obama in the future, then people with a high taste for Information will be more likely to rate him favorably. Regardless of which team they pull for, if your friends are generally Sticky in their decisions then they're more likely to approve of President Obama's performance. The people with a favorite car brand and favorite restaurant are also more likely to stick with the President they have.

Scott de Marchi and James T. Hamilton are professors at Duke University and the authors of You Are What You Choose: The Habits of Mind that Really Determine How We Make Decisions.

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