Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Gulf Oil Spill as Obama’s Katrina

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist June 3rd, 2010

With millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, 11 oil rig workers dead, thousands of jobs in the fishing and tourist industries in jeopardy, and untold damage to beaches, wetlands, and wildlife, the Gulf oil spill is already a massive human, economic, and environmental catastrophe. There is growing public frustration with the response of BP and the federal government to the crisis. All of which has pundits and media commentators asking whether this disaster could become President Obama’s Katrina.

Whether the Gulf oil spill will do serious long-term damage to President Obama’s public support remains to be seen. Thus far, however, there is little evidence that it has hurt the president’s approval rating which is slightly higher in the most recent three days of polling by Gallup (50 percent) than it was immediately before the spill (48 percent). In fact, Obama’s approval rating is right where it has been for the past several months.

Moreover, the question of whether this disaster will become Obama’s Katrina rests on an important assumption—that Hurricane Katrina did serious damage to President Bush’s public support back in the summer and fall of 2005. Despite the prevalence of this belief, however, a careful examination of polling data from that period shows that Katrina actually had little if any impact on Mr. Bush’s approval rating. Rather, the data show that the president’s approval rating was already in serious decline before Katrina and continued to decline at about the same rate after Katrina.

Figure 1 shows the trend in President Bush’s average monthly approval rating in the Gallup Poll during 2005. The vertical line on the graph indicates the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina in late August. Bush began the year with an approval rating of 52 percent, unusually low for a newly reelected chief executive. Nevertheless, his approval rating began dropping further almost immediately and continued to decline throughout most of the year, reaching a low point of 38 percent in November before rebounding to 42 percent in December.

Figure 1. George Bush’s Average Monthly Approval Rating in Gallup Poll During 2005


A casual inspection of the trend line in Figure 1 shows no obvious effect of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush’s average approval rating was 44 percent in August, before Katrina, and 44 percent again in September, after Katrina. Moreover, the rate of decline in the months following Katrina appears very similar to the rate of decline in the months before Katrina. To determine whether this was the case, I conducted a regression analysis of the president’s monthly approval rating in 2005 on two independent variables—the number of months since the beginning of the year and a dummy variable for all polls conducted in September or later to capture the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The results are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Regression Analysis of Bush Approval During 2005


The evidence in Table 1 confirms the conclusions drawn from a casual inspection of the trend line in Figure 1. Hurricane Katrina had little or no effect on President Bush’s approval rating. According to these results, the President’s approval rating was declining at an average rate of about one percentage point per month during 2005. The estimated coefficient for the Katrina dummy variable, (-.676) indicates that the hurricane reduced Mr. Bush’s approval rating by less than one percentage point beyond what would have been expected based on the long-term trend. Moreover, this coefficient is not even close to statistically significant.

Conclusions

The fact that Hurricane Katrina had no apparent effect on President Bush’s approval rating in 2005 does not necessarily mean that the Gulf oil spill won’t affect President Obama’s approval rating in 2010. However, these findings suggest the need for caution in assuming that any event, even one as dramatic as the Gulf oil spill, will have a major impact on the public’s evaluation of the president. In an era of intense partisan polarization, interpretations of such events are heavily colored by party loyalties. If that is the case with the Gulf oil spill, its effect on public opinion may be largely to reinforce Americans’ existing views of Mr. Obama just as Hurricane Katrina largely reinforced Americans’ existing views of President Bush. So far, at least, that appears to be the case.