Obama's Poll Numbers are Up, but Most White Voters Are Still on the Outs

Why Republicans have hope for 2016, even as the president's approval rating inches upward.

Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama is heading into his penultimate State of the Union after an election that ended his party's (partial) control of Congress. Bush spent the period between his midterms and the big speech laying groundwork for the Iraq surge. Obama reacted to his loss by basically ignoring it, moving ahead with what Republicans call an "executive amnesty" and ending the freeze with Cuba.

Like Bush, Obama's going into the SOTU with an underwater approval rating. Yet according to RealClearPolitics's average of polls, Obama is in far better shape than Bush was. At this point in his second term, Bush's net negative approval rating was 22 points. According to the same aggregator, Obama's underwater by only 6 points. He's recovered from a poorly timed autumn 2014 swoon and settled in at an approval rating of around 45 percent, and one new poll puts him at 50 percent. Bush was chugging along at  37 percent.

What explains the gap? The Upshot's Nate Cohn sees a"surge among Hispanic voters" and a little growth for Obama from voters newly confident about the economy. (Democrats could have used this gas price crash in mid-October 2014.) That second data point might explain why Republicans are more popular than they've been in years, even as voters warm up to Obama. Cohn adds that the better Obama numbers complicate the GOP's plans of replacing an unpopular president in 2016.

Probably. The only problem is that Obama's numbers with white voters are almost as low as they've ever been. In the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, 78 percent of non-white voters (and 89 percent of black voters) approve of the president. Only 36 percent of whites agree. That's a rebound from his December level of white support–29 percent, his lowest ever. It's just a little shy of the 39 percent of the white vote Obama won in 2012.

This doesn't matter for Obama, who (no matter what the chain e-mails say) can't run again. To see why it matters in 2016, you need to read between the lines of Dan Balz's new story in the Washington Post about the argument Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker can make to GOP primary voters.

Ohio is always a battleground, but Democrats have controlled most other big states in the industrial belt. A Republican nominee who could put into play some of those states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and maybe even Illinois—would force a recalculation of the Democrats’ current advantage in electoral college math. That’s not to say that Walker could do so, but it would be a calling card he would dangle in front of Republican primary and caucus voters.

In the Obama era, all of those states became more Democratic when Obama was on the ballot. All of them became less hospitable, if not hostile, to Democrats when he wasn't. In 2010, Republicans swept the governors' races in every one of those states save Illinois, where they settled for the Senate race. In 2014, they took every one of those state's gubernatorial races save Pennsylvania. Yet in 2008 and 2012, Obama won each of those states with a bigger overall vote than Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry ever had. (Clinton, who won his two races with Ross Perot on the ballot, never actually won a majority  in Ohio or Pennsylvania.)

The unanswered question for Democrats: Which electorate do they get in 2016? If they got the same white electorate as Obama did in Ohio, but if black turnout and Democratic loyalty in the state fell as it did when John Kerry ran, the Republicans would win it. The positive/Pollyanna Democratic theory, as off/on Hillary Clinton strategist Mitch Stewart told Dylan Scott last year, is that the presumed post-Obama nominee would make up for losses among non-whites by winning back white voters.

Those white working-class voters in those states could be "the difference between winning and losing, assuming that we maximize turnout, we maximize voter registration in St. Louis, Indianapolis and northwest Indiana," he said. "Assuming we do all those things, the fact that would push her over the top is her appeal to white working-class voters."

This just didn't happen in 2014. In West Virginia, a white Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate who ran away from the Obama administration did even worse than Obama had in 2012. In Walker's Wisconsin, a white, female Democratic nominee took just 42 percent of the white vote, down from Obama's 48 percent.

How is it possible for Republicans to dream about Midwest gains in 2016 while Obama's approval numbers are ticking up? This is how. If the next Democratic nominee can't match Obama's non-white vote while improving on his white support, Republicans see a way past her.

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