In the past, most midterm elections in the U.S. have reflected how voters viewed the performance of the incumbent presidential administration. It is likely that the 2010 midterm elections will follow that pattern. Interested readers should take a look at Tufte's classic and influential paper on this point in the American Political Science Review (1975), and the vast research literature that has followed Tufte's paper.1
Exactly how a president's performance is framed for voters plays a critical role in determining whether the president's party suffers large losses in a midterm election --- or whether the president's party can stem the potential losses in a politically problematic environment.
And by most measures, Obama and the Democratic party are in such a problematic environment, according to some new survey data recently released by The Economist/YouGov. This survey, conducted May 15-18, 2010 with 1000 respondents, found that 46% of Americans approve of the job that Obama is doing as president, while 47% disapprove. A third of the respondents to this survey said that the country is going in the right direction. Only 14% approve of the job that Congress is doing, and among the registered voters in the sample 44% say that they are voting Republican or leaning Republican for their upcoming congressional vote.
But just as the survey data shows how bleak the situation might be for the Democratic party in the midterm election, buried further in the survey data are some interesting results that demonstrate exactly how each side might try frame and discuss Obama's presidential performance as we get closer to the November general election.
The survey asked respondents whether they thought that a series of words described Barack Obama, for example whether he is intelligent, bold, religious, or experienced. I took the data from that survey, and produced the graphic at the left. The blue bars give the percentages of survey respondents who said that the word described Obama, the red bars are the percentages who said the word did not describe Obama. I sorted the presentation of the words in the graph by the differences in the percentages, so that on the left we have the word where there were many more yes than no responses, and on the right we have the word where there were many more no than yes responses.
Interestingly, looking at the data in this way shows that the words where Obama does the best are intelligent, bold, inspiring and strong. Despite taking on the presidency during one of the most challenging economic situations the nation has faced, and despite a tough battle over health care reform, it is fascinating to see that Americans generally describe Obama as intelligent, bold, inspiring and strong.
No doubt these are likely to be among the phrases that Democrats use in coming months to frame Obama's performance so far as president, so don't be surprised to hear these phrases, or images that evoke these descriptions, in the campaigns of Democrats this year.
At the other end are the words that are problems for Obama --- experienced, religious, and unifying. There is also no doubt that we will hear these words from Republicans during this midterm election campaign, and that Republicans will likely talk about Obama's performance in these terms, especially experience and unity.
The most intriguing words are those where Americans are equally divided about whether they describe Obama, in particular patriotic, honest, partisan, effective and realistic. Unfortunately the report containing the survey data is quite limited, and we don't know how these words work for important subpopulations of voters. Too bad we don't have additional details in the survey report, because I wonder whether there is partisan or ideological polarization behind these numbers (are Republicans or conservatives those who say that patriotic does not describe Obama, and are Democrats or liberals those who say patriotic does describe Obama?). If so, we might hear these words used to frame Obama's performance as well, in particular campaign appeals that are crafted and targeted to those voters.
1Tufte concluded his analysis, "Our fundamental finding is that the vote cast in midterm congressional elections is a referendum on the performance of the President and his administration's management of the economy" (page 824).