Believe It or Not, the Left Is Still Behind Obama

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Larry W. Smith / EPA

President Barack Obama shakes hands after delivering a speech urging Congress to pass the American Jobs Act at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, Oct. 4 2011.

With Zuccotti Park occupied, Obama’s approval ratings on the economy reaching new lows, and liberal columnists offering daily critiques of what they saw as a stunted stimulus and toothless Wall Street reforms, one can understand why California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom might have thought his recent venting session at a gathering of fellow Democrats in Half Moon Bay would be met with approving clucks or, at very least, silent nods. Not so much.

“Among the Newsom jabs: Obama should have pushed his agenda harder when the Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress,” recounted the San Francisco Chronicle, “a remark that drew a handful of boos from the audience.” It was just one room of people and there’s nothing wrong with passionate dissent from within a political party–if anything, it’s a healthy sign of democracy. But Newsom ran smack into what seems to be a common misconception about the Obama presidency: Though many of the left’s opinion makers have turned away from Obama, broader liberal flight is a phenomenon that simply doesn’t exist.

Real Clear Politics’ latest data crunching pegs the President’s average approval among Democrats at a robust 76.8%. (For comparison, in October of 1995, soon-to-be-re-elected Bill Clinton’s Democratic support was a near-identical 77%, according to Gallup.) And what of the real left? The ones whose disappointment has been given voice by people like Drew Westen to Paul Krugman? It turns out self-identified liberals’ support for Obama isn’t far behind at 72% in Gallup’s latest tracking data.  (The same group gave Clinton 65% approval in a 1995 Washington Post/ABC News poll.) While Obama has seen some minor decline from the peak of his approval ratings, any change you’ve seen in the past year among liberals is likely little more than statistical noise. Here’s a chart from the first half of the summer that shows Obama garnering the same level of support from liberals in June and July that he has now.

Support isn’t everything. Elections can be won and lost on enthusiasm–whether a candidate’s supporters are willing to donate money, volunteer time and actually show up to vote. And there’s no doubt that Obama will struggle to recreate the Democratic ecstasy that swept him into office in 2008. But alarm on that front also seems premature.  “Small Donors Are Slow to Return to the Obama Fold,” trumpeted A1 of the New York Times on Sept. 25, suggesting that disappearing low-dollar donations from Joe and Jane Liberal tracked with a thoroughly disillusioned base. But the Times offered only anecdotal evidence from a few dozen people.

Political scientists argue there’s no indication yet that the President’s small donors won’t return when Americans outside the Beltway really start paying attention to the election some time next year. “A comparison to past campaigns (including 2008) provides little empirical evidence that donations have differed in size or timing during this early phase of the current election cycle,” writes Cornell’s Adam Seth Levine. “In fact, I would argue that [small donors’] behavior is not ‘slow’ at all, but instead perfectly normal. At this point we cannot conclude anything about possible fundraising challenges down the line.”

It’s safe to say that Team Obama knows all this. They’ve consistently tailored their message to the middle, not the left–polls show even Obama’s new, sharper tone on taxes is well-tailored to self-described moderates and independents–and the White House’s occasional dismissal of criticism from “the professional left” isn’t so brazen when you take into account that it’s not actually aimed at (or reaching) the base. But Gavin Newsom, who rumor has it might run for Congress next year when Rep. Lynn Woolsey is likely to retire, should know that in the liberal bastion of San Francisco, there’s little political upside in breaking with Obama.