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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Do Obama, George W. Bush, and Gerald Ford Have in Common?

The Obama-Romney race continues to cut down the middle of the (limited) historical information we have on previous presidential races. This underscores the conclusion that the winner of this year's race cannot be predicted with any certitude from existing data at this point.

There have been 10 presidential elections since World War II in which an incumbent ran for re-election. In seven of these, the incumbent won. Therefore, everything else being equal, this very limited sample suggests that the incumbent should have an advantage -- a home-field advantage of sorts.

The first president since World War II to seek re-election was Harry Truman in 1948. The year 1948 represents a major anomaly as far as polling is concerned. For one thing, Gallup quit measuring presidential job approval in June 1948, when Truman had a 40% approval rating and a 44% disapproval. We don’t know for sure, but we think Dr. George Gallup and his associates did that because they were measuring the trial heat ballot and felt it wasn’t necessary to continue to track presidential job approval. Still, one thing we learned from the 1948 race is the fact that a 40% job approval rating for an incumbent in June of the election year can still result in a victory for that incumbent. Second, as is well known, Gallup and other polling firms’ trial heat ballots predicted a clear victory for Thomas Dewey, governor of New York. Gallup’s final poll had Dewey with 45% of the vote, Truman with 41%, with the rest going to Henry Wallace, Strom Thurmond, or to “other/undecided.” Of course, that was wrong. Truman won by a 50% to 45% margin.

There have been five incumbent elections since World War II that produced “easy” victories for the incumbent. All were clearly evident in the data ahead of time. These incumbents were Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Bill Clinton in 1996. All five of these presidents had job approval ratings above 50% in the summer and fall before their elections and were winning handily in the trial heat ballots prior to their elections.

Obama’s job approval ratings and trial heat position at this point do not emulate these strong positions. He is not in an “easy” election position.

There were two incumbent presidents whose eventual losses were clearly evident by virtue of their job approval ratings at this point (the summer) of their election years -- Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Both had job approval ratings in the 30% range. The trail heat ballot for these two presidents was not as clear, however. Carter from time to time through September of 1980 actually tied with or beat Ronald Reagan, who surged at the last minute and went on to win convincingly. Bush was leading Clinton and Ross Perot in early July 1992, but when Perot dropped out of the race (he came back in later), Clinton surged ahead and stayed ahead for the rest of the race.

Obama’s job approval ratings at this point do not emulate the weak positions of Carter and Bush, Sr.. He is not a clear “loser” at this point.

That leaves two races: Gerald Ford in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2004.

Ford, a congressman from Michigan, had been appointed vice president by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew had to resign in disgrace in 1973 because of corruption charges. Ford ascended to the presidency in August 1974 after Nixon resigned in disgrace because of Watergate.  Becoming president as part of a scandal was certainly not an auspicious precursor to a successful re-election bid two years later.  Plus, Ford pardoned Nixon in September 1974, a decision with which the American public soundly disagreed. This also didn’t help his case for re-election and is thought by some to have cost it for him. Still, in June 1976, Ford had a 45% approval rating and a 40% disapproval rating. That was it. Like 1948, Gallup quit asking approval for Ford after that point (until after the election).

In the trial heat ballot from July 16-19, 1976, Jimmy Carter was massively ahead of Ford, 62% to 29% among registered voters. Carter maintained a lead -- but by September the race got a lot closer. In fact, when the dust settled, Carter only won by two percentage points in the popular vote, 50% to 48%. These results underscore how much the trial heat ballot can change over time.

George W. Bush was not a highly popular president, in many ways similar to where Obama is today. Bush’s average job approval rating in July 2004 was 48%. Last week, the first week in July, Obama’s was 45%.  Democratic nominee John Kerry was leading Bush among both registered voters and among likely voters in July of 2004. Bush moved ahead in the fall, but ended up winning by three points, 51% to 48%.  So, like Ford, and like Obama today, Bush was in a mid-range historical position and ended up in a close race in the popular vote. 

So, we can say that Obama’s job approval rating at this point puts him in the same broad range as Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, further suggesting that the outcome of the popular vote this fall may be quite close.  Obama's trial heat positioning against Romney -- statistically tied at this point -- also suggests a close race, although as we have seen, the trial heat is not a solid predictor this far out.


Anonymous said...
July 16, 2012 at 2:38 PM  

I enjoyed this analysis - one point: when the discussion is about how W Bush (43) and Obama are in the same range of job approval, it might be relevant to note that when W Bush was re-elected in 2004 the national unemployment rate was 5.4%

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