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Monday, June 27, 2011

Obama Job Approval and 2012

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has been hovering near the fault line between probable re-election and probable “one-term” presidency.

This magic line for an incumbent president is not precise, but can be considered to be at about the 48% mark.

Obama’s job approval rating has been generally in the 45% to 50% range now for about a year, with occasional forays above 50% and occasional drops below 45%. Obama's job approval rating for last week -- June 20-26 -- was 43%, tied for the lowest weekly average of his administration so far. If history holds, it will come back up again. If not, then it's a new ballgame, although not necessarily one that will affect his chances for re-election - given the 16 months between now and the election.

We have seen only 10 presidents who have sought re-election since World War II (and the advent of systematic modern polling). We don’t know, for example, what the job approval rating would have been for presidents like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren, or William Howard Taft -- all of whom were defeated in their bids for re-election. Likewise we don't know the job approval ratings of presidents like George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, or Woodrow Wilson -- all of whom ran for and won a second term.

The number of cases for which we do have poll data is too small to estimate a precise mathematical relationship between an incumbent’s job approval rating and his chances of re-election. But, as noted above, the data can at least be instructive.

Seven of the modern day 10 presidents were successful in their re-election bids (Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush).

One of these -- Harry S. Truman -- managed to win with relatively low job approval ratings. Gallup quit measuring Truman's job approval rating after June of 1948, but it was 40% at that point. He went on to beat Thomas Dewey.

Gallup's final job approval rating in October 2004 for George W. Bush was 48%. He went on to beat his fellow Yale alumnus, John Kerry.

Otherwise? Eisenhower's final pre-election job approval rating in August 1956 was 68%, Lyndon Johnson's in June 1964 was 74%, Richard Nixon's in June 1972 was 56%, Ronald Reagan's in October 1984 was 58%, and Bill Clinton's in October 1996 was 54%. All well above 50%. All were re-elected.

What about the three modern-era presidents who failed in their bid for re-election -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush?

Ford is an anomalous case, given that he had never been elected president in the first place. Ford was appointed to the vice presidency when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, and then ascended to the presidency when Richard M. Nixon also resigned in disgrace (in August 1974) . Ford had been in office only about two years when he was defeated in his bid for re-election in November 1976. Gallup's final job approval rating for Ford in June 1976 was 45%.

Both Carter and George H.W. Bush had quite low job approval ratings as they sought re-election. The final Gallup job approval rating for Jimmy Carter in September 1980 was 37%. And Gallup's final approval rating for George H.W. Bush in October 1992 was 34%.

Both Carter and Bush were seeking re-election in situations in which the public perceived the economy as being in very negative territory, and both had strong political personalities opposing them -- Reagan in the case of Carter, and Clinton in the case of Bush. Both, it seems to me, were unable to convince the public that they were working hard and on top of the changing situations confronting the nation.

Bottom line, as you can see: Presidents with job approval ratings below 48% tend to lose their bids for re-election. Presidents with ratings at the 48% level (for George W. Bush) or above 50% for the rest, tend to win. As noted, there are not many cases to work with here. As seen with Truman, exceptions can occur. But if Obama is at 50% or higher next October, it certainly would not be too risky to hypothesize that he has a better than 50-50 chance of winning re-election. And if his job approval rating is down at 43%, where it is now, his chances of winning re-election are probably lower than 50-50.

Keep in mind that Americans’ views of the U.S. economy at this point are pretty terrible, just as they were in 1980 and 1992. Any hope for perceived improvement in the U.S. economy this year has so far not come to fruition.

Most basically, views of the economy are clearly translated into presidential job approval. The worse the economy, in general, the worse a president’s job approval rating. And a president’s job approval rating, in turn, is highly related to his chances of being re-elected. There are other factors in play, of course. The changing population characteristics of the states, the fact that Obama has unswerving support from a core groups of voters, including African Americans, and the quality of the opponent Republicans will nominate to oppose Obama will all be factors next year. But everything else being equal, if Obama’s job approval rating is below 45% of so next fall, he will be in trouble. And if it is above 50% he will be looking good.


Anonymous said...
July 5, 2011 at 7:50 PM  

My question is, if the economic outlooks are so pessimistic among Americans(-35 or so), why doesn't Obama's approval rating reflect this sort of number? His approval numbers are mediocre, but still well above the economic confidence numbers. Is this because Americans realize he wasn't in office when this recession began and that at least some people who approve of his job credit him for "damage control"? Or is it more likely that during the election season Americans will begin blaming him for the recession more en masse and we will see his approval numbers tumble down to be in line with the economic/direction of the country numbers?
If you want to answer this question, please stay away from the "Obama is a socialist taking away our freedom" or "Obama is a tool of Wall Street" or "Republicans are crazy fascists" type of rhetoric.

Devin said...
July 6, 2011 at 4:56 PM  

There is such a large gap between George W. Bush's rating (48%) and the rating of failed re-election campaigns (e.g., Carter's 37% and George H.W. Bush's 34%) that it seems unfair to peg the threshold at 48%. This is especially true in light of Truman's 40% rating in June of 1948.

What would be helpful is also an analysis of disapproval rating for successful candidates (e.g., was there a large gap between the two where the fence riders fell disproportionately in favor of the current office holder). In the case of Truman, the disapproval rating was not above 50% by the last polling, so the windfall break scenario is quite plausible.

Brian Dunn said...
July 11, 2011 at 5:28 AM  

Good piece. Though LBJ was not re-elected as president but getting elected again after being president still is fitting to be included in the list. Also, I am sure looking at the numbers you provided its not just a certain positive number but also a certain negative number. All the presidents had a higher approval number than disapproval number and all the losers had the higher disapproval number. Never-the-less, Obama's numbers and the economy are historically a bad sign for his re-election but I think Obama is a wildcard, he has much of the media in his court and he has the stigma of the first African American president so perhaps history will not repeat itself this time.

CJ said...
September 23, 2011 at 12:23 AM  

Although there has been a history of correlation between high approval ratings and re-election, I believe Obama, like Truman before him, could successfully pull through to a second term.

The American people should remember that Obama took on a large responsibility as the 2008 presidential candidate winner, inheriting the huge budget deficit Bush left him with. There are many expectations of him, but no suggestions as to how to do what needs to be done.

Anonymous said...
September 23, 2011 at 1:36 AM  

The numbers show that the presidents with higher approval were re-elected but it would be better not to hypothesize that Obama will or will not be re-elected. There are many factors that affect the election that could incraese or decrease his chances of winning.

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