Susan Page and I spent some time on our weekly Election Matters show going through the past five presidential elections in which an incumbent was trying to get re-elected, and comparing them to where this 2012 race stands today.
If you haven’t watched it, you should.
Basically, Barack Obama is in a better position now by objective indicators than were the two most recent losing candidates – Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. He is in a worse position than two of the three most recent presidents to win re-election – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Obama is in a quite similar position to George W. Bush's position in 2004. Bush ended up winning that election over Democrat John Kerry, by three percentage points in the popular vote. Bush’s job approval rating was in the upper 40s at about this time in 2004, as is Obama’s today. And, in terms of the trial-heat ballots, Bush and Kerry were close, as are Obama and Romney today. In a May 21-23, 2004, poll, for example, it was Kerry 48%, Bush 46% among registered voters. In our most recent weekly seven-day rolling average this year, from May 22-29, it’s Obama 46%, Romney 46% -- again, among RVs. You can’t get too much more similar than that.
No election is like any other election, of course. A big issue in 2004 was the war in Iraq, which was a little more than a year old at that time. Plus there was the continuing war on terrorism, some three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The economy was not as much of an issue then as it is now.
Let me be more specific. In our May 2004 update on Americans’ views of the most important problem facing the nation, 42% of mentions focused on some aspect of the economy, compared with 66% economic mentions now (May 2012).
On the other hand, the biggest non-economic problem in May 2004 was the war in Iraq, mentioned by 26% of respondents. How things have changed. Today, 1% of all mentions refer to Iraq and 1% to the still-ongoing war in Afghanistan, with a few other scattered mentions of wars and national security.
Back in May 2004, 12% of all mentions were related to the war on terrorism, compared with 1% today. All other issues in 2004 were in the single digits. Today, other than economic concerns, the only issue that gets double-digit mentions is disapproval of the way government works, with 14% of all mentions.
So Obama is facing a different environment than did Bush. Voters today are more focused domestically on the economy, and less worried about wars or terrorism. The concern about the economy most likely does not work to Obama’s benefit. It is likely that concern about terrorism worked to Bush’s benefit in 2004. The impact of the war in Iraq in 2004 is somewhat more difficult to determine.
So, given the closeness of the race, what potential events could tip this race one way or the other in the approximately five months until the election?
One of the most important factors will be the direction of the economy, something that most people who study elections conclude is a major factor in predicting the ultimate winner. Our measure of economic confidence is as positive as it has been over the last four years, but is still in negative territory. We will know more after Friday, when the government announces the May unemployment figures.
Second, unforeseen or dramatic world events could tip the race one way or the other. There are a number of hot spots around the world, any of which could boil over into high-focus news focal points. A president usually benefits in the short run if there are international challenges (we call these "rally effects").
Third, there is always the potential for candidate gaffes or incidents that stick in voters’ minds. Mind you, most gaffes and incidents don’t stick in voters’ minds, even though the media, with their short attention spans, insatiable appetite for anything new to report on, and need to focus on driving up ratings and clicks, will give any incident its time in the limelight. But one never knows what incidents or statements will take on lives of their own and either help or hurt a candidate in the long term.
Fourth, it’s possible that this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act will make a difference in the presidential race -- regardless of what it is.
Fifth, there is the impact of basic, old-fashioned campaigning and advertising. Both campaigns will be spending millions of dollars in the months ahead. (Neither Obama nor Romney will dare attempt to take long vacations, in the fear that the other candidate will use that opportunity to gain the upper hand.) All of this activity may actually make a difference.
Sixth, Romney will get massive short-term publicity when he announces his vice presidential pick. It’s not clear that the VP pick ever makes a big difference, but it’s an event that will focus attention on Romney and on his campaign and away from Obama. So it could have some type of impact.
And then, along come the conventions, beginning in late August, followed by the October debates. By that point, it’s possible the general course of the election will be set. At this point, however, it's difficult to assign strong odds that either candidate will win. The race looks quite even, and quite similar to where the 2004 race was at this point.
My current analysis of more than 25,000 interviews we have conducted since April 11 shows that the overwhelming majority of Mormons support Mitt Romney for president.
That's not a great shock. After all, Mormons are one of the most Republican groups in America, and this year, for the first time in history, one of the major-party nominees will be Mormon. And Mitt Romney happens to be a Republican.
Still, it is very difficult for most pollsters to routinely measure Mormons' attitudes. That's because Mormons make up only about 2% of the U.S. population, meaning that the typical random sample of 1,000 Americans will yield only about 20 Mormons -- far too few to be able to analyze meaningfully.
But, the very large sample sizes generated by our onging election tracking allow us to accumulate enough Mormon respondents to look at. More specifically, we have 517 self-identified Mormon voters in our sample from the April 11-May 21 time period.
To set the stage, over this entire April 11-May 21 history of our interviewing so far, Obama and Romney are tied right down the middle, 46% to 46%. In fact, my colleague Lydia Saad brought to my attention the fascinating fact that for our latest three-week rolling average, reported here in great detail by many different demographic groups, there are exactly the same number of weighted voters interviewed who support Obama as support Romney -- to be exact, 3,930 supporting each candidate.
Not all Mormons support Romney. To be precise, the data show that while 84% of Mormons support Romney, 13% support Obama. Mormon support for Romney is not as monolithic as is, for example, black support for Obama, which for this same time period is 90% for Obama and 5% for Romney.
We’ve shown before that Catholics remain roughly evenly split between the two candidates. This is still the case. Protestants as a group, despite the fact that many Obama-leaning blacks are Protestant, support Romney over Obama by 52% to 40%.
What about Jewish voters? They support Obama over Romney by 63% to 28%. This is a somewhat closer margin than what the exit polls reported in the 2008 election, which was 78% for Obama vs. 21% for John McCain. Of course, that estimate is just an estimate. The 2008 exit poll, according to the CNN report, was based on 17,836 interviews. Since Jewish voters were reported as 2% of that, we can estimate that the Jewish percentage in the exit poll sample translated into no more than 400 actual voters interviewed (although that's just my best guess). Our current sample has 610 Jewish voters, which is larger than the exit poll sample. In other words, our sample today may be at least marginally more valid in the sense of representing Jewish voters than the exit poll was in terms of representing Jewish voters at that point.
Obama beat McCain by 7 percentage points in the popular vote in 2008. In our current overall sample, Obama is tied with Romney. So we need to adjust the data some on that basis. In other words, if Obama were leading Romney by 7 points today in our overall sample, we assume that he would be leading by an increase of a little less than that same margin among Jews. Plus, 9% of Jewish voters in our sample are undecided, and if we allocate them mostly to Obama, he gains some more. Bottom line -- the projected vote of our current sample of Jewish voters is probably not too far off from what the exit polls suggested was the case in 2008.
In other words, I don’t see strong evidence of a major change in the Jewish vote so far this year.
Finally, there is the vote of the 13% of voters in our sample who say they have no religious identity. These voters go 65% for Obama and 25% for Romney. And those who identify with a non-Christian religion -- about 2% of the voter population -- go for Obama 75% to 15%, making this Obama’s strongest religious group (Muslims were broken out separately, but the sample size is too small to report).
Basically, Romney does well among Protestants and Mormons, and he ties Obama among Catholics. Obama dominates among every other religious group we measure, including those who don’t have a formal religious identity.
A recent analysis by Forbes estimates that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is worth over $200 million, which would make him one of the richest presidents in U.S. history if he is elected. Plus Romney's estimated 2011 tax return indicates that he made $21 million last year.
No surprise then that 82% of Americans, when asked in a May 3-6 Gallup poll, said that Mitt Romney is "rich." Maybe the surprise here is that 18% of Americans did not say that he was rich.
However, Romney is not the only rich candidate. Forbes estimates that Barack Obama's net worth is just shy of $6 million. His tax return for 2011 showed that he made nearly $790,000 in income. So, objectively, Obama is also rich, but certainly not as rich as Romney.
And, in that same May 3-6 Gallup poll, 68% of Americans said Obama is rich.
What does this mean? Only 2% of Americans classify themselves as rich. But, as we have reported, well over six in 10 of us would like to be rich if we could. And we think it’s a good thing that we have a rich class in this country.
So, in theory, the fact that the substantial majority of Americans see both Romney and Obama as rich shouldn’t be a negative.
Obama himself is careful to make note of the fact that he is well-off in his speeches about inequality, pointing out that “people like me” should be willing to pay more taxes in order to help fund government.
Obama is, of course, hardly the first Democratic president to be personally wealthy while at the same time adopting a political platform of sympathy for those less well-off and a desire to help them do better. Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were all personally well-off (Johnson having acquired his wealth through a mysteriously-acquired media empire in Texas), yet focused on those less fortunate.
Of course, Romney and Obama arrived at their riches via different paths. Romney made his fortune as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Obama made his more modest millions by writing best-selling books, for the most part, although his current salary of $400,000 a year as president puts him in or near the top 1% of all income earners in this country.
Obama’s campaign team has apparently decided to attempt to carve out a distinction between their candidate and Romney in terms of the way in which each of the men became rich. They recently released an ad focusing on the consequences of Romney’s actions as head of the private equity firm, including the fact that people were laid off in firms that Bain acquired or took private. In other words, attempting to show that in some ways Romney’s wealth was ill-begotten and/or to use his acquisition of wealth as an exemplar of his more callous, less sympathetic character traits. This builds on the existing fact that Obama, at this point in time, is seen as more likable than Romney and as more concerned about “people like you.”
It will be harder for Romney’s team to take aim at Obama’s path to wealth, since there are few immediately apparent objectionable consequences to publishing a best-selling book.
There has been little substantive change in the gender gap in Americans' voting intentions -- a conclusion I reach looking at over 11,000 interviews we have conducted since April 11. Women continue to skew toward Obama and men toward Romney.
Let’s look at the numbers. We are reporting demographic breaks on a wide variety of variables each week based on three-week rolling averages of well over 8,000 interviews each. Our first report of the demographic breakouts encompassed April 11-May 6, and included more than 11,000 interviews since we began interviewing in the middle of the week (April 11). Thus, this first period of interviewing has over 5,000 interviews with men and over 5,000 interviews with women. All are registered voters.
The gender gap for the period of time April 11-May 6 thus provides an excellent baseline. Here’s what we found:
- Men were 42% for Obama; 50% for Romney
- Women were 49% for Obama; 42% for Romney.
To hone it down a bit more, we can look at our most recent weekly average, for May 7-13. Here we find men 41% for Obama; 50% for Romney, and women 51% for Obama; 40% for Romney.
There has been a little variation. Men in the baseline interviewing (April 11-May 6) were +8 for Romney, and in the most recent week were +9 for Romney. Women in the baseline interviewing were +7 for Obama, and in the most recent week were +11 for Obama. If anything the gender gap has spread out a bit, particularly among women, but this is not what I would call a substantive change.
Of course, this overall gender gap masks interesting patterns taking place within the data. The big interest relating to the gender gap is among non-Hispanic white voters, given that nonwhite voters will overwhelmingly support Barack Obama regardless of their gender.
For our first three-week period of tracking (actually three weeks and five days as I noted above), white women were 41% vs. 50% for Obama and Romney, respectively. For the next three-week rolling average they were 42% vs. 50%. Men were similarly stable at 32% vs. 59% and then 33% vs. 59%.
Looked at differently, for our most recent three-week rolling average, white women were +8 Romney and white men were +26 Romney. (All of these data are available here.)
One way of looking at this is to say that the spread in the gender gap among all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, is 20 percentage points -- the difference between the 9-point Romney edge among men and the 11-point Obama edge among women. Among white voters, the gender gap is 18 points, the difference between the Romney edge of 26 points among white men, and 8 points among white women.
Much different overall numbers, but basically the same gender gap.
Gallup’s very large sample sizes allow us to track relatively small demographic sub-segments with stability and reliability. So when a dispute comes up surrounding reports of movement within subgroups on voting intentions, these data provide an excellent source of adjudication. And in terms of any reports that the gender gap has disappeared in recent days, we just don’t see it.
More broadly, these large sample sizes provide an excellent way to track the race in general. So far, our conclusion is that the two major party candidates, Obama and Romney, are essentially tied at around 45% to 46% of the vote each. There are some trend patterns that show one or the other of these moving into the lead for short periods of time, but so far neither of the candidates has been able to mount a sustained lead over the other among registered voters. It remains a close race.
Everyone is asking, and some are speculating, about the political impact of President Barack Obama’s decision to publicly state his personal support for legal same-sex marriage. There is no doubt that Obama’s campaign team spent long hours contemplating the political ramifications of his decision. These discussions almost certainly included an analysis of available polling data. His team's decision that Obama should go ahead with his announcement suggests that in their opinion, on a net-net basis, the potential political benefits of the announcement outweighed the potential political harm.
We know that values issues, like same-sex marriage, are low on an overall priority list for the average American. We just finished our May update wherein we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. Two-thirds mentioned some aspect of the economy. Less than 1% specifically mentioned issues relating to gay rights or gay marriage. Even when we asked Americans in the same poll to tell us what worries them about the state of moral values in this country, very few mention gay issues.
From a big picture perspective, the economy rules. The direction of the economy in the next four months is going to have a much greater impact on the outcome of the election than Obama’s public announcement that he supports legalizing same-sex marriage.
It’s also fair to say that, although this issue dominates news coverage today and tomorrow, it will fade away in the weeks to come.
American presidential politics today is divided along several important fault lines. One of these is values. As my colleagues Jeff Jones and Lydia Saad and I just reviewed, Americans’ religiousness is one of the most important predictors of their partisanship and vote for president -- particularly among white voters. Highly religious and moderately religious white Americans support Romney. Nonreligious white Americans swing totally around and support Obama. Support for legal same-sex marriage follows these same lines. In other words, Americans' religiousness predicts both their politics and their position on same-sex marriage.
Thus, Obama’s public support for legal same-sex marriage will serve to reinforce this pre-existing religious/values divide in American politics. Religious Americans will most likely be reinforced in their support for the Republican presidential candidate -- Mitt Romney. Nonreligious Americans will either be unaffected, or for some, reinforced, in their support for the Democratic candidate -- Barack Obama.
Romney did not fare well with highly religious white Republican voters in the GOP primaries this year. Rick Santorum in our polls, and in exit polling, disproportionately claimed the allegiance of this voting group. These voters swung their support to Romney after he clinched the Republican nomination. But it is not clear how passionate or enthusiastic that support has been. It is possible that the Obama announcement will serve to reinforce the motivation, passion, and enthusiasm for the Romney campaign among highly religious white voters.
Core, liberal supporters of Obama will be reinforced in their support for the president. But. There is a fascinating exception to this -- black voters, who suffer cross-pressures on moral values issues. Blacks’ support for Obama is, in general, higher than any other group we measure -- 90% say they will vote for Obama in our latest analysis. Blacks, however, do not fall in line with traditional Democrats on this issue of same-sex marriage. I aggregated our last three May Values polls (2010, 2011, and 2012) together to get a larger sample size of black respondents. Overall, 49% of Americans in these three polls said they supported legal same-sex marriage. Overall, 41% of blacks agreed. That puts blacks significantly closer to Republicans’ attitudes on this issue than to Democrats’. This reflects the fact that blacks are the most religious of any major race or ethnic group in America.
It’s highly unlikely that anything will change this vote predilection, including Obama’s announcement. It is possible that Obama’s public stance could, at least in theory, have the impact of reducing black voter motivation and turnout next November. But probably not too possible. Since it can be assumed that most blacks already knew Obama’s general position on this issue, it’s not likely that the announcement will have a material change on anything to do with black voting patterns. But we will have to wait and see.
The other possible impact of Wednesday's announcement could derive from the circumstances of the announcement per se. Obama clearly made the announcement in response to the focus on the issue that emanated from Vice President Joe Biden's statement on Meet the Press on Sunday that he supported legal same-sex marriage. The question here is whether voters will see Obama's decision to follow suit on Wednesday as a courageous act of leadership and dedication to personal convictions, or as a cave in to political demands. Right now, Obama beats Romney on the dimension of being a strong and decisive leader. Again, we will have to wait and see how this plays out in the minds of American voters.
An interesting question in our recent USA Today/Gallup Swing States poll asked Americans to rate their perceptions of the relative ideological positioning of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The question asked if Obama/Romney were more conservative “than you,” about the same, or more liberal “than you.”
Among swing-state registered voters, the percentage saying each of the two candidates are “about the same" were similar: 34% said that Obama’s ideology was about the same as theirs, while 31% said that Romney’s was about the same. (I should note that 4% didn’t answer when asked about Obama and 10% didn’t when asked about Romney.)
Now this is interesting in and of itself. It means that at the outset roughly six in 10 voters in the swing states believe that Obama and Romney’s ideology is different than theirs. This reflects the polarized nature of American politics today.
But there are very interesting differences in the way these images of the two candidates play out.
Those who believe that Obama’s ideology is different than theirs overwhelmingly say that he is more liberal than they are. In fact, 54% of all Americans say that Obama is more liberal than they are, while 9% say he is more conservative than they are. Looked at differently, if we just examine the pool of those who say that Obama’s ideology is different than theirs, 86% of this group say he is more liberal than they are. Thus, basically in American politics today (or at least in the swing states), you either think that Obama is more liberal than you are, or that his ideology is the same as yours.
Naturally, this perception of Obama as being more liberal is driven by Republicans, almost eight in 10 of whom say that Obama is more liberal than they are. Importantly, independents also tilt that way, with 59% saying that Obama is more liberal than they are.
One would imagine that Democrats would be more likely to say that Obama shares their ideology. This is generally the case, although not overwhelmingly so. About six in 10 Democrats say that Obama is about the same as they are. But, almost a quarter say Obama is more liberal than they are (14% say that Obama is more conservative than they are).
Now, for Mitt Romney, we see a quite a different picture.
All in all, 60% of Americans say that Romney’s ideology is different than theirs. (By way of comparison, remember that 63% of Americans say that Obama’s ideology is different than theirs.) So, just to reiterate, there isn’t much difference between the two candidates on this basis.
But Romney’s image position is, by no means, the mirror image of Obama’s. It is not the case that Americans tilt just as strongly toward the belief that Romney is more conservative than they are as they do toward the belief that Obama is more liberal than they are.
The data show that 37% of all Americans say that Romney is more conservative than they are, while 23% say he is more liberal than they are. Thus, 62% of the pool of those who say that Romney’s ideology is different than theirs say he is more conservative -- compared to the 86% for the comparable number for Obama. Thirty-eight percent say that Romney is more liberal than they are.
Fewer Democrats say that Romney is more conservative than Republicans say that Obama is more liberal than they are (64% versus 79%). Independents mirror the sample average, tilting toward saying that Romney is more conservative than they are.
Here’s the interesting finding. One-third of Republicans say that Romney is more liberal than they are, while 13% say that he is more conservative.
It is clear, in other words, that Obama has a more sharply etched ideological image than does Romney. Most of those who don’t believe that Obama’s ideology is the same as theirs say he is more liberal than they are. The majority of those who don’t believe that Romney’s ideology is the same as theirs say he is more conservative than they are. But, unlike the case for Obama, there is a sizable minority, many of them Republicans, who say that Romney is not what you would expect -- more liberal than they are.
The key to the election this year -- as is always the case -- is two-fold: motivating turnout among the candidate’s core constituency and gaining support from voters who are not firmly committed to one or the other candidate.
Those voters who are not firmly committed to one or the other candidate are generally more centrist, and not rigidly committed to one ideological side of the spectrum or the other. The fact that Romney, apparently, has a less-fixed ideological image could, in theory, put him in a better position to gain the allegiance of more centrist swing voters. At least, that is one theory. The downside for Romney, of course, is that his more centrist image may dampen enthusiasm among conservative Republicans, resulting in a lower turnout and campaign effort among this group.
This is the tightrope that both candidates are walking this year. We've seen this in the last several days for Obama as he and his campaign team attempt to deal with the issue of gay marriage. Going too far in the direction of endorsing legalized gay marriage runs the risk of alienating possible swing voters and also some highly religious nonwhite voters within his Democratic core. Not going far enough runs the risk of alienating other liberal voters within his Democratic core. Romney faces the same issues from a different perspective, but does so with a modestly less rigid ideological image than his opponent.
The sample size of presidents who have sought re-election in the modern era of polling is quite small -- just 10 since World War II.
But even this small handful of contests gives us some contextual clues for understanding the current positioning of the 11th president to seek re-election since World War II -- Barack Obama.
Of the 10 who have gone before him, seven were victorious: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The three who failed were George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford -- although Ford was an exceptional case given that he inherited the presidency from a disgraced president (Nixon) only about two years before he had to seek re-election.
Let's look first at the two most recent campaigns in which the incumbent lost: George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Carter in 1980. Our quest is to see how the position of these two incumbents in May of their re-election year compares with where Obama is today.
George H.W. Bush was clearly in trouble in May 1992 based on his job approval rating of 40% (in a May 7-10, 1992, Gallup poll). Bush had enjoyed an 89% job approval rating just a little more than a year earlier following the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf War. That “ratings high” was short-lived, however, and the bad economy and perceptions of how well Bush was or was not handling economic matters began to eat away at his ratings. Bush bottomed out with a job approval rating of 29% in late July/early August, and, of course, he went on to lose to Bill Clinton in November (with Ross Perot gaining 19% of the popular vote). Still, despite his ailing job approval rating, Bush was not doing as poorly in terms of the trial heat horse race numbers in May 1992: Gallup had Bush at 35%, Ross Perot at 30%, and Bill Clinton at 29%.
Jimmy Carter was also not faring well in terms of his job approval rating in the spring of 1980. His approval rating was 43% in a May 2-5 poll and fell to a nadir of 31% by June of that year. Still, as was the case for Bush senior, Carter was doing OK in terms of the trial heat ballot in May 1980. He lead Reagan by 38% to 33%, which John Anderson coming in behind at 21%.
Both of these cases suggest that the job approval rating now is more predictive than the trial heat ballot positioning. This follows the general conclusion in Robert Erickson and Christopher Wlezien’s new book The Timeline of Presidential Elections. They found that, in general, the presidential job approval rating is more important as a predictor of the election outcome at this point than the trial heat ballot -- while the ballot becomes more important as a predictor as Election Day approaches.
What about the three most recent presidents who won re-election?
George W. Bush’s position no doubt provides the most potential comfort for Obama’s campaign team. Bush’s job approval rating in a May 2-4, 2004, Gallup poll was 49%, lower than Obama’s current 51%. Bush was also essentially tied with John Kerry in a trial heat poll among registered voters: 45% for Bush and 44% for Kerry, with Ralph Nader picking up 6%. Bush ended up winning over Democrat John Kerry by only three percentage points: 51% to 48%. But he won.
Obama today is in essentially the same position as Bush was then. His job approval rating is slightly higher than Bush's May 49% reading, and although the margin varies, Obama is roughly tied with Romney in the trial heat ballot, with the most recent five-day average showing Obama slightly ahead.
Thus, Obama’s current position looks closer to Bush’s than it does for any of the other incumbent presidents we are analyzing here. As is always the case, of course, every election is different. For one thing, Bush was an incumbent Republican, while Obama is an incumbent Democrat. That means, among other things, that Bush gained a few points in the translation from registered voters to likely voters in the final analysis, which is what usually happens to Republican candidates. Obama is likely to lose some ground against Romney based on differentially higher turnout among Republicans on Election Day.
One of the major issues of 2004 was the Iraq War, with an undercurrent of homeland security and terrorism. The economy is the big issue this year. On the other hand, Bush’s 2004 opponent was a rich, white male in his 60s from Massachusetts. Obama’s 2012 opponent is a rich, white male in his 60s from Massachusetts.
But I think the bottom line is that Obama is in reasonably close enough proximity to Bush’s positioning in 2004 -- based on the job approval and the trial heat ballot indicators -- that he could in theory duplicate Bush’s win.
Bill Clinton was in a better position when he sought re-election in 1996 than Obama is now. Clinton had a job approval rating of 55% in a May 9-12, 1996, poll, and he was significantly ahead of Bob Dole, 47% to 32%, in the trial heat ballot, with Ross Perot getting 19% of the vote. Clinton ended up winning over Dole by a margin of eight points, with Perot picking up 9% of the vote.
Ronald Reagan had a job approval rating of 52% in a May 3-5, 1984, poll. He was only ahead of Walter Mondale by four points, 50% to 46%, among registered voters in a May Gallup poll. Reagan picked up steam as the year progressed, bolstered by an effective campaign strategy, and eventually went on to win over Mondale by 18 points: 59% to 41%.
Overall, we see that Obama is right in the middle of the contextual landscape provided by the last five U.S. presidents who sought re-election. He is not in as bad a position as were Carter and George H.W. Bush in May of their re-election years. He is not in as good a position now as were Reagan and Clinton in May of their re-election years. Obama is just about exactly where George W. Bush was at this point in his re-election year -- and of the five presidents, Bush’s margin over his opponent in the popular vote ended up being the closest. This suggests that a prediction of a close race next November would not be unreasonable.
The big question: What will the trajectory of Obama’s approval and ballot positioning be between now and November? That will in part depend on the trajectory of the economy. Stay tuned.