Reuters/Larry Downing

The president’s stated goal of uniting the country may be a lost cause

The debt ceiling debacle, the stalled economy, and a run of natural disasters have all taken their toll on the American psyche, not to mention a huge whack at President Obama’s popularity. The president’s approval hit a record low in late August, according to Gallup’s daily poll, with only 38 percent of those surveyed saying they approved of the job he's doing as president, while more than half (55 percent) said they disapproved.  While large majorities of black Americans continue to support the president, he has seen a steady erosion of support from Latinos, college graduates, and higher income Americans. He's taking hits not just from conservatives, but from his core constituency on the left as well. On August 25, AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka accused him of working “with the Tea Party to offer cuts to middle class programs” and threatened to sit out the Democratic convention next year.

But what is the geography of the president’s approval? How does Obama fare at the state level, which is so critical given the role of the Electoral College? Are these trends redrawing the all-important red versus blue map of American states? 

The maps below, prepared by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI), chart the change in the President’s approval and disapproval ratings from 2009 through August 2011.  Recall that Obama won an overwhelming majority of Electoral College votes in the 2008 election. These maps paint a picture of an increasingly difficult reelection bid in 2012.


The president’s approval rating has fallen in every state save for Vice President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware. It has dropped to 40 percent or less in 16 states and to 50 percent or less in 39.  These include key states he carried in 2008, such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and Nevada.  Obama’s approval rating stands at 50 percent in Michigan and Wisconsin, also states he carried in 2008. And it has plummeted in the reliably blue states of California, New York, and New Jersey, and even in his home state of Illinois.


The second map charts the shift in the president’s disapproval rating.  In 2009, there was not a single state which gave Obama a 50 percent disapproval rating.  By August 2011, his disapproval rating was 50 percent or more in 19 states, and it had risen to 60 percent or more in Idaho (63 percent), Wyoming (62 percent) and Utah (60 percent). Fortunately for him, those are mainly red states he did not carry in 2008. Still his disapproval rating has increased in every state. And it has jumped significantly into the 40-50 percent range in the key states of Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon and Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, all of which he carried in 2008. It remains below 40 percent in just 10 states, all solidly blue enclaves, and the District of Columbia.

That politicians’ approval ratings wax and wane with unemployment rates and changing economic conditions is a commonplace—but what factors lie behind these shifts? Do they simply reflect the effects of a sagging economy? Or do they signal a more significant shift away from Obama in key socio-economic voting blocs?

To get at this my MPI colleague Charlotta Mellander and I correlated Obama’s approval and disapproval ratings in both 2009 and 2011 with Gallup data on economic conditions and economic confidence, as well as with key social, economic, and demographic characteristics—income levels, workforce and class structures, educational or human capital levels, religiosity, and levels of diversity—for the 50 states. Obviously, correlation is not causation; other factors that we might not have considered could have played an equal or greater role. But the results are interesting enough to consider at some length.

In his influential book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman famously noted that while rich people vote Republican, rich states tend to vote Democratic. The latter trend continues to hold for the president’s approval. Higher income states continue to approve of the president, while disapproval is considerably higher in poorer states. Income is positively associated with Obama’s approval rating (.62), and negatively associated with his disapproval rating (-.56).  Also, the change in Obama’s approval rating over time is positively associated with state income levels (with a correlation of .37).  Simply put, Obama’s approval rating, while declining across the board, has stayed higher in wealthier states. The affluence of states remains a key factor in how different places view the president and in the broader economic and political divide that plagues the United States.

Education levels remain a similar axis of political cleavage. States with higher levels of college grads are much more likely to approve of the president. The share of college graduates is positively associated with Obama’s approval rating (.45) and negatively associated with his disapproval rating (-.46).  Furthermore, the change in Obama’s disapproval rating over time is statistically associated with the level of college grads (with a correlation of -.29).  In other words, disapproval of Obama has increased more significantly among less educated states. America’s political geography continues to cleave by education.

Obama’s approval continues to reflect the geography of class in America. The loss of manufacturing and the transition to a knowledge-based economy has been uneven: Job loss has concentrated in some states, while the growth of knowledge and creative class jobs has occurred in others. Approval of the president is positively associated with the share of creative class workers in a state (.52). Conversely, states with larger blue-collar workforces are more likely to disapprove (.59) of the president. And, our analysis reveals that disapproval has increased more significantly in these working class states. America's views about Obama continue to be shaped by and reflect its deepening class divide.

Diversity factors into the equation as well. Obama’s approval rating is higher in states with more foreign-born residents (.53) and more gays and lesbians (.55).  As angry as the gay community has been at Obama for his caution and fence sitting on such issues as DADT and DOMA, the demise of both unpopular laws has helped him with that constituency. States with higher percentages of gays are more likely to approve of the president and less likely to disapprove of him than they were a couple of years ago in 2009.

Obama’s approval, like American politics more generally, continues to cleave along religious lines. States that disapprove of the president are considerably more religious. Religiosity is positively associated with the level of disapproval (.37) and negatively associated with approval (-.35).  That said, the role of religion remains more or less as it was: It is not statistically associated with the change in either Obama’s approval or disapproval rating.

Pundits tie the president’s sinking approval to the state of the economy and his handling of it. Our findings here are intriguing. Gallup asks a series of questions about how people view economic conditions in their states. It does not seem to matter whether people in a given state think economic conditions are “good” or “bad.” There is no statistical association between perceptions of current economic conditions and Obama’s approval or disapproval ratings. What does matter is their perception of the future. States where more people view the economy as getting better are more likely to approve  (.58) of Obama. Conversely, states where people view the economy as getting worse are more likely to disapprove (-.63) of the president.

Even as the president’s approval rating has plummeted and his disapproval rate has spiked, Americans' views of Obama continue to reflect the deep and fundamental divides of income, education, class, religion and diversity.  In fact, this underlying socio-economic polarization only appears to have grown deeper and to have crystallized around how states view the president. States where more people approve of Obama are more affluent, diverse, and highly educated, and have a larger creative class share. States where more people disapprove of the president have lower incomes, lower levels of education, larger blue-collar workforces and are more religious.

It’s far too early to write Obama off as a one-term president, especially when we still don’t know who his opponent might be. Nevertheless, the evidence seems clear that Obama’s stated goal of uniting the country is already a lost cause. Three years into a supposedly post-partisan administration we are more divided—by class, by education, by politics, culture, and geography—than ever.

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