Perspectives on Partisanship

It’s been noted this week that partisanship has been running high in views of President Obama's job performance. That's true - but is it new?

Gallup finds a 65-point gap between Democrats and Republicans in Obama’s approval rating on average the past year, the biggest first-year average for any president back to Eisenhower. While that’s accurate, stepping away from the first year fills out the picture in useful ways.

First take individual measures rather than averages. Our latest ABC/Post poll found a 67-point Democratic-Republican gap in Obama’s approval rating. That’s big, and it’s been a bit bigger, 72 points in September. But we also saw maximum partisan gaps of 76 points in George W. Bush’s approval rating in 2004, 68 points in Bill Clinton’s in 1996 and 64 points in Ronald Reagan’s approval in 1984. Partisanship, it’s clear, is not new.

Annual averages provide another perspective. In our data Obama’s averaged a 64-point partisan gap the past year, about the same as the Gallup figure. While that’s a first-year high, it’s been similar for other presidents in other years. The average gap was 68 points in G.W. Bush’s most partisan years, 2005 and 2006 alike. It was 61 points in Bill Clinton’s most partisan year, 1996. And it was 56 points, a bit smaller, in Ronald Reagan’s most partisan year, 1988.

Partisan differences were smallest for George H.W. Bush, an annual average of 46 points in 1992. The irony is that he’s the only one of these presidents to lose re-election, suggesting that a smaller partisan gap is not necessarily a sign of political health.

Indeed, as powerful as partisanship can be, what matters more are the attitudes of independents, the centerweight of national politics. Obama’s averaged 56 percent approval among independents the past year, with a low of 43 percent last month. Bush had worse annual averages among independents for five years straight, from 2004 to 2008. Clinton averaged 47 percent among independents in 1994. Bush’s father averaged 41 percent among independents in 1992. And Reagan’s annual low was an average of 52 percent among independents in 1987.

Another point about partisanship is its increasingly ideological nature; at about this time last year I posted an item, skeptical of the notion of post-partisanship, reporting how the correlation between political allegiance and ideology had grown steadily over the years, from a low of .2 in 1981 to a high of .48 in 2008. What’s interesting is that this did not grow further in 2009; it remained at .48. The connection of ideology and partisanship is as high as it’s ever been in our data – but, in the past year, it’s grown no higher. Here’s an updated chart:

In sum, Obama’s clearly struggling, as the economy would predict. Partisanship, and ideological partisanship, are high. Racial divisions, per a piece I posted earlier this week, are broad as well. But presidents aren’t judged by a time-bound standard, and breaking our analysis beyond the artificial constraint of the one-year mark makes clear that this president’s challenges in public approval, while surely significant, aren’t fundamentally different from those his predecessors have seen before.

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