Presidential Approval Ratings and Social Sentiment

Being popular isn’t easy. Unsurprisingly, being popular while trying to please roughly three hundred million people isn’t any easier. Sadly, this is an issue that President Obama is all too familiar with at the moment.
If the efforts taken by Democratic candidates to distance themselves from Obama in the midterm elections weren’t enough, a cursory glance at any major presidential approval rating will quickly set straight any doubts on Obama’s faltering popularity status. Last month, approval ratings for our president hit an all time low in his six years in office.
So really, it’s no question, it’s clear that Obama is unpopular at the moment. The better question, which no one seems to be asking, or at least which no one seems to know is: Well, why is he unpopular?
The very nature of presidential approval ratings will never allow for them to be a source in answering this “why” question. Almost all approval ratings have been structured in the same way since their conception in the 1930s. Generally, they offer a question both deliberate and to the point, i.e. “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?” While effective in its intent, this question offers a limited perspective into the voters underlying sentiment. To truly understand what’s making Obama unpopular in the eye of the American people, we have to ask those people, or at the very least see what they’re saying.
Unsurprisingly, when people want to talk politics, or talk anything for that matter, they have a penchant to turn to social media. An extremely active virtual-town-hall, social media is where constituents often go to voice their most current thoughts on the president and his policies. Since 2009 there have been nearly thirteen million posts on Twitter alone that reference Barack Obama in some way. The visualization below quantifies this conversation and graphs the exceptional number of Tweets mentioning Obama in a five month period.
Net Sentiment for Obama
Active social media conversation presents us with a massive stock of data for uncovering trends and influences of voter sentiment. Using Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight platform, we can both track this online exchange and perform an in depth analysis on the conversation itself.

Focusing in on specific time periods that were momentous in the president’s career, we can gather important information on reactionary voter response. Using the Topic Wheel visualization we are able to perform a qualitative analysis of the discussion involving the Ebola outbreak within the broader conversation of President Obama. In regards to this particular ebola conversation, we can see that disdain for Obama was expressed in conjunction with ISIS and Obama’s apparent time spent on the golf course during the initial outbreak. This tool provides us with the insight to deconstruct the dialogue that is driving sentiment towards the president.
POTUS Ebola Topic Wheel
Mid-October in 2013 was a funny time for President Obama. It marked the official release of healthcare.gov, beckoning the Affordable Care Act into U.S. history. And to the disdain of the Obama Administration, it also happened to be the same week that the U.S. federal government shutdown. While this occurrence was particularly unfortunate for President Obama, it provides us with an extremely interesting event for uncovering the inner workings of presidential approval ratings.
In the midst of this political dilemma, Obama’s approval ratings were abysmal. Gallup reflects a 42% approval rating for the October 7-13th date range, their lowest in nearly two years. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that the American people were upset with the president and with the government in general. Yet, there is an undercurrent here that approval ratings fail to report; in spite of the shutdown, a measurable amount of people were happy with Obama. The Clusters visualization below demonstrates precisely what they were happy about: the Affordable Care Act. Over the same date range that Gallup reported those historically low approval ratings, positive sentiment comprised 20% of posts that mentioned the president in some way on social media. This sentiment was largely overshadowed with anger over the government shutdown, but nonetheless it was still being voiced, and ForSight analysis allowed us to uncover that.
POTUS Word Clusters
If we ever wish to answer this ever-looming “why” question, a good place to start might be the place where everybody seems to be offering their answer. The democratic nature of social media has allowed it to function as the proverbial soapbox where voters stand to be heard. However, being able to extract meaning from this expanse of social media chatter is difficult. Luckily, ForSight provides us with the capability of structuring this data, and extracting content that leads to powerful insights.

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