Is Obama Getting His Mojo Back?

BY Dante Chinni  December 27, 2011 at 12:37 PM EST

President Obama speaks from the Rose Garden at the White House; Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images President Obama speaks in the White House Rose Garden; file photo by Jim WatsonAFP/Getty Images.

Barack Obama has not had an easy ride as president. He took office as the economy was collapsing on many fronts — spikes in home foreclosures and unemployment — and the tone of the political debate, which was already harsh, has only grown more contentious. His approval rating plummeted.

And yet going into 2012, the president is not in a bad place electorally. Polls show he’s essentially running even with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one potential re-election rival, in head-to-head match-ups and doing much better against the rest of the GOP field.

And as the calendar gets ready to flip over into the political hot season, Patchwork Nation sees the president actually doing well in the counties that matter most, according to an analysis of Pew Research Center polls from August to December. The percentage of voters approving of his performance sits above the percentage disapproving in four of Patchwork Nation’s geographic/demographic breakdown of 12 county types.

It’s far too early to say that President Obama is headed for re-election, but considering the hand the president was dealt coming into office, the White House must be looking at 2012 with, at the very least, a bit of optimism. Perhaps even more important for the president, when you look only at the most recent poll numbers, the numbers from December, his approval rating seem to be improving across the board.

The Monied Burbs

There were many keys to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory; the biggest was his triumph in the largely suburban wealthy counties Patchwork Nation calls the Monied Burbs. Former Vice President Al Gore won those counties by 3 percent in his run for president in 2000. Sen. John Kerry won them by 1 percent in his 2004 run. But Mr. Obama won them by 10 percentage points.

There are 69 million people who live in the Burbs and they are located in many key states (they are in beige around many major cities on the map below).

The swing in the vote in those 286 counties carried Mr. Obama and while it is unlikely he will carry them by that margin again, he needs to at least do as well as Gore did in 2000.

The Pew numbers from August to December show he has an approval rating of about 47 percent in the Burbs, while 44 percent disapprove. Looking at just the December numbers, 47 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove.

President Obama Approval Ratings by Community Type

Community TypeAug.-Dec. ApproveAug.-Dec. DisapproveDec. ApproveDec. Disapprove
Monied ‘Burbs47444743
Minority Central55445538
Evangelical Epicenters28613552
Tractor Country33603361
Campus and Careers45445339
Immigration Nation43504845
Industrial Metropolis54375433
Boom Towns41503951
Service Worker Centers38524145
Emptying Nests39534441
Military Bastions45454830
Mormon Outposts39614456
Nationwide44474643

Source: Patchwork Nation analysis of Pew Research Center data

Beyond the Burbs, the Pew numbers show Mr. Obama is doing better than expected in the racially divided Minority Central counties — places with larger black and Native American populations. (The counties in orange on the map above.) He has an approval rating of 55 percent in those counties, looking at the Pew numbers since August, while only 40 percent disapprove.

The high levels of support out of Minority Central may have to do with blacks, who polls show still stand strongly behind the president. Those counties could be critical in 2012 and we will write more on them next week.

And President Obama may be starting to get some of his mojo back in collegiate Campus and Career counties. His support had slipped in those places — the August to December numbers showed his approval number was 45 percent and his disapproval 44 percent — but the latest numbers show a big bump up, lifting his approval to 53 percent. It should be noted, however, that those figures came from a small sample.

Looking Ahead

Granted it’s not the most flattering set of poll data — the president is still under 50 percent in the Burbs, for instance, and even in the better December numbers, he is only above 50 percent in three of the 12 county types. But, again, these numbers come after three hard years, and things may be improving economically.

As Patchwork Nation has noted in recent weeks, the news on unemployment, foreclosures and other measures is better — if by no means great. If unemployment continues slowly drifting downward, President Obama will be the most likely beneficiary, politically.

If the current trends continue, the unemployment rate will likely dip below 8 percent in the Burbs soon. That would be a significant benchmark not seen since 2008.

Perhaps more to the point, these “approval” numbers most likely represent a kind of floor for President Obama as the re-election campaign begins in earnest. That is to say, this is what people think about Mr. Obama as a stand-alone candidate. Nearly all the poll numbers for the president look better when he is competing against an opponent head-to-head.

And increasingly in the coming months, that comparison, not approval, will drive what voters think. It’s also the only comparison that will matter next November.