PRINCETON, NJ -- The historically high gap between partisans' job approval ratings of Barack Obama continued during Obama's third year in office, with an average of 80% of Democrats and 12% of Republicans approving of the job he was doing.
In fact, Obama's Year Three average 68-percentage-point partisan gap is tied for the fourth highest in Gallup records dating back to the Eisenhower administration. Only George W. Bush's fourth, fifth, and sixth years in office showed higher degrees of political polarization. Together, Bush and Obama account for the 7 most polarized years, and 8 of the top 10.
Notably, 3 of the top 10 years coincided with presidents' re-election years, including Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1996, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. In fact, a president's fourth year tends to be the most polarized, as has been the case for each of the last six elected presidents. Since 1953, Eisenhower is the only elected president whose fourth year was not his most polarized; his sixth year -- a midterm election year -- was the one with the largest gap in his approval ratings by party.
Americans likely view a president seeking re-election in more sharply partisan terms as they decide whether he is deserving of a second term in office. Thus, it would be expected that Obama's already highly polarized ratings may become more so over the next 12 months.
2011 Is Most Polarized Third Year by a Wide Margin
The 68-point gap between partisans' approval ratings of Obama last year is nine points higher than that for any other president's third year. George W. Bush had the previous high for a third year. The list of third-year averages underscores the point that the highly polarized ratings are a more recent phenomenon, with four of the last five presidents at the top of the list.
Obama ran his successful 2008 presidential campaign partly on bringing Americans together, but that has not been the case in practice to date. Republicans rarely say they approve of the job he is doing, while Democrats rarely say they disapprove. Thus, Obama's ratings have been consistently among the most polarized for a president in the last 60 years.
That may not be a reflection on Obama himself as much as on the current political environment in the United States, because Obama's immediate predecessor, Bush, had similarly polarized ratings, particularly in the latter stages of his presidency after the rally in support from the 9/11 terror attacks faded.
Given the typical pattern in which presidents' ratings tend to be most polarized in their fourth year in office, when presidents are seeking re-election, Republicans' and Democrats' views of Obama may diverge even further this year.
Explore President Obama's approval ratings in depth and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.
Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of Gallup Daily tracking Jan. 20, 2011-Jan. 19, 2012, with a random sample of 179,170 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.
For results based on the total samples of 52,632 Republicans and 54,675 Democrats, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
The questions reported here were asked of a random half-sample of respondents on the Gallup Daily tracking survey.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.