THE BLOG
02/24/2009 08:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Little Perspective on Early Approval

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There have been a number of selective comparisons of President Obama's approval ratings one month into his presidency. Some stress change since earlier readings, some focus on comparison to a previous president, though seldom more than one. And some find stable high approval while others note a first reading below 60 (in their poll, not in all polling.) So let's bring some perspective to this by simply looking at all the data.
The chart above shows all newly elected presidents since 1952. The historical data are from the Gallup Poll, the only organization with such a long term history. And for Obama we have all the polls conducted so far by anyone, a total of 80 counting daily trackers by Gallup and Rasmussen. 
The previous presidents didn't "enjoy" such intensive polling, so one challenge is choosing which early polls to use in a comparison. While each previous president got at least one poll in their first thirty days, others waited until nearly 60 days for the second. This makes comparison to previous presidents "at the 30 day mark" a bit of an approximation.
President Obama has the opposite problem. With 80 polls so far the issue is which to choose. ABC/WP at 68%? CNN at 67%? CBS/NYT at 63% USAToday/Gallup at 62%, Gallup Daily at 59% ("first time below 60"), Rasmussen Daily at 60%, Greenberg/Democracy Corps at 58%? 
How about changes? CNN is a whopping 9 point drop, from 76 (an outlier) to 67. But CBS/NYT finds a 1 point rise from 62 to 63. USAToday/Gallup down 1 point, 63 to 62. Gallup Daily down 9 from the first post-inaugural 68 to 59. Rasmussen down just 1 point, 61 to 60 from first post-inaugural to now (but their overall trend is down). 
So let's try a little perspective. 
First, across all 80 polls, there has been a small downward trend in approval of Obama, from 63.7% to 60.9% based on my local trend estimate (the solid dark blue line in the figure.) 
There has also been a lot of scatter in the polling. The open blue circles in the figure show all 80 polls. We've seen lows of 52 and 54 and a high of 76, but the substantial majority of approval readings are between 60% and 67%.
That range of readings puts Obama not at the high end nor at the low end of post-war presidents.  Kennedy, Eisenhower and Carter were consistently higher early on. Nixon started slightly lower, but moved up into Obama's range. Both Bushes started a little lower but then moved up to 60% or better briefly then back to the 50s. Reagan and Clinton were consistently lower and didn't challenge the 60% range for some while. So the clear evidence is that Obama enjoys good but not extraordinary approval ratings for the first month of his presidency. 
There is some interesting variation across the polls. The chart below shows that the Gallup and Rasmussen daily tracking polls are both trending down on parallel trajectories. But the non-tracking polls, what we used to think of as the "normal" national polls, are flat or even a bit up (the early outliers pull the line down at the beginning, without them it is basically flat). Put it all together, and you get the blue line trend, with that modest 63.7% to 60.9% decline.
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It is an interesting puzzle why the two daily trackers see a downward trend while the other national polls don't. Part of the answer is the role of house effects and the small number of non-daily polls. That the most recent polls are towards the middle or upper range of all polls makes the black "other polls" trend run flat and high. The advantage of the daily polls is they use the same methodology every day, so their trends can't be flukes of mixing different methods. But between the two daily polls there is a house difference of about 4 percentage points, so clearly there are methods artifacts here as well.  The "all polls" trend estimate splits these differences pretty reasonably, but the variation you see here means there are lots of opportunities to cherry pick a poll you like, whichever side you like. 
Finally, let's remember all this doesn't mean much of anything for the long-run success of a presidency. President Clinton started low but ended with the best final approval poll of all these post-war presidents. President Carter started high but ended low. The chart below tells the tale:
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Statistically, there is no correlation between standing at the second poll (roughly 30 days) and final approval poll. It doesn't matter if we use any of the polls taken in the first 90 days. There is simply no relationship between early performance and the public's judgment once the presidency is at its end.  So let's be a bit slow to place too much emphasis on these early polls. At this point, we are 2% of the way through President Obama's term. Plenty of time left to learn if he succeeds or fails.