Posted in Rants on August 31st, 2009 by Ed

Like any President taking office with impossibly high expectations and in the middle of a serious crisis, Obama's approval ratings have declined steadily since Inauguration Day. It is easy to look at the aggregate numbers and start jumping to conclusions but the partisan breakdown is far more interesting:

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Essentially there has been no change among Democrats. The trend is nearly flat. Republicans have behaved predictably. Frankly it's amazing that Obama had a 35% approval rating among that group nine months ago, and it was inevitable that the moment he did anything one might expect from a generic Democratic president that modicum of support would disappear. Independents show the same trend as Republicans. The magnitude is different, obviously, but the pattern of immediate and gradual decline of support (and increase in disapproval) is identical. Why?

Political science may not have revealed everything about the mind of the American voter, but we do know that "independent" doesn't mean what the media thinks it means. It is important to understand the loaded meaning of the term, the prevalence of social desirability effects (the tendency of survey respondents to give the answer they feel is expected of them or is most socially acceptable rather than an honest answer), and the scant attention most Americans pay to all things political. In this context, "independent" means any of the following:

  • 1. A person whose ideological preferences legitimately lie between the two major parties. These are True Independents, and this is what pundits and political figures have in mind when they use the term. But there is no evidence that they form a majority of the Independent group.
  • 2. "I don't know." When someone asks you a question to which you don't have an answer "Independent" is a convenient out. Few adults are keen to admit that they pay absolutely no attention to politics.
  • 3. Republicans who are tired of Obama-lovers giving them crap about being Republicans. The same effect would have been in play in 2003-2004, when voters to the left of Goldwater might have chosen Independent as a way out of conversations they didn't want to have with their yellow ribbon-clad friends and co-workers.
  • 4. People who have a strong ideological preference but think that being Independent makes them look cool. Seriously. There is a psychological benefit people can derive from declaring that they are Independents, i.e. free thinkers who are open-minded and unwilling to submit to a party label or to follow crowds. If you don't think independence and individualism are loaded and comoddified terms, watch Nike and soft drink commercials for an hour and get back to me.
  • 5. Something I like to call "Dr. No Syndrome" – people who oppose everything, including the major parties. No matter what Obama does, these folks won't like it. Government is bad, the parties are bad, the media is bad…

    When we understand what Independent really means, graphs like the ones shown above make more sense. Democrats stand by their man. Republicans surrender whatever hope they had of Obama being a Republican. And Independents are an amalgam of the angry, the ignorant, the dishonest, and the legitimately moderate. The last group receives the most attention and their motivations are imputed to all voters who call themselves Independent. The media's willingness to assume that all Independents are thoughtful moderates is but more evidence of how favorably the concept is looked upon in our society. Phenomena like the tendency of Independents to be strangely hostile to Democratic presidents or the seemingly random fluctuations of opinion within the group are an artifact of its status as a catch-all category for voters with very different motivations, levels of information, and ideological preferences.

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