July 30, 2009

Obama’s Ratings Slide Across the Board

Section 2: Henry Louis Gates Jr’s Arrest

The developing story about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Barack Obama’s comments on the incident occurred while the latest Pew Research Center survey was being conducted. On the first night of interviewing, Wednesday, July 22, Barack Obama commented that the police had “acted stupidly” in his prime-time press conference. By Friday, both Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley – the police officer involved – publicly commented on the issue, and on Friday afternoon Obama followed up on his original remarks by saying he had spoken with Crowley by phone, and had used an unfortunate “choice of words” in his press conference.

An analysis of the press coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that media attention to the story built substantially over the week, to a peak of 31% of the overall newshole on Friday.
Further analysis of the content of the stories found that the news stories through Thursday focused primarily on the facts surrounding Gates’ arrest itself, but by Friday had turned to a focus on Obama’s statements and the appropriateness of his involvement in the issue.

An analysis of public responses over the course of the survey period suggests that Obama’s job approval and personal image may have slipped somewhat – among whites – over the five days the survey was conducted. In interviews conducted Wednesday and Thursday night – largely before the analysis of Obama’s comments became the main part of the story – 53% of white non-Hispanics approved of Obama’s overall job performance, compared with 46% of those interviewed Friday through Sunday. Disapproval among whites edged up from 36% on the first two nights to 42% Friday through Sunday. And the share of whites who say they like the kind of person Obama is slipped from 75% to 69% over the same period.

Whether these changes in Obama’s ratings over the interviewing period are a response to his handling of the Gates affair can only be inferred, not explicitly proven. But a small follow-up study confirms that the vast majority of Americans were aware of Obama’s statements and the general reaction – particularly among whites – was relatively negative. A small re-contact survey conducted Monday night found 46% saying they have heard a lot about Obama’s comments regarding the Gates incident and another 33% have heard a little – just 19% had heard nothing at all about the issue. And substantially more say they disapprove (41%) than approve (29%) of how Obama has handled the situation.

Whites disapprove by a two-to-one margin (45% disapprove, 22% approve). The negative reaction among whites to Obama’s involvement in this incident reaches across party lines. Republicans, not surprisingly, disapprove of Obama’s handling of the situation by a 67% to 15% margin. But 40% of white independents also disapprove compared with just 18% who approve. And even among white Democrats, 83% of whom approve of Obama’s performance overall, nearly as many disapprove (30%) as approve (37%) of how he’s handled this issue.

There is an overwhelmingly negative reaction to Obama’s handling of the Gates issue among whites who heard a lot about Obama’s comments. Seven-in-ten (70%) whites who heard a lot disapprove of how Obama handled the situation, while just 23% approve. In part, this reflects the fact that Republicans were more likely to have
heard a lot about Obama’s comments.

There is no public consensus with regard to who is to blame for the original incident. When asked who, if anyone, was more at fault in the conflict between Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley, 27% say Gates and 25% say Crowley. Nearly half say they don’t know (36%), or blame both (10%) or neither (3%) parties. The balance tilts slightly toward faulting Gates among whites (29% vs. 22% who blame Crowley) though 10% blame both and another 39% do not assign blame to either.

Reactions to Gates’ arrest are closely linked to partisanship among whites. Half of white Republicans (50%) say Gates was at fault, compared with just 15% of white Democrats. Roughly a third (32%) of white Democrats fault Crowley, compared with just 13% of Republicans.