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Behind the Numbers
Posted at 04:23 PM ET, 09/15/2011

What Obama’s approval ratings can’t tell us

A review of Gallup year-out approval ratings seems to bolster the case for generalizing results of Tuesday’s big GOP win in a key special election, along with Obama’s low approval ratings, to next year’s presidential contest. Since World War II, six of seven presidents with approval ratings higher than Obama’s today (39 percent according to Gallup) were reelected, while both presidents with ratings below Obama’s were not.

But sub-50 approval ratings are also no guarantee of electoral doom. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were all reelected after sinking below 50 percent in Gallup polls at this point in their tenures, albeit none as low as Obama. (Note: Reagan and Clinton had already topped 50 percent in Post-ABC polling at this point in time, but they didn’t rise above that level in Gallup until November of 1983 and 1995, respectively).

Go below Obama’s current standing, though, and the results are less rosy. Lyndon Johnson chose to not even seek the Democratic nomination after holding 38 percent approval at this point in time, and Jimmy Carter’s 30 percent approval foreshadowed a landslide loss to Reagan in 1980.


Unpredictability, though, is the rule in presidential elections, with major election-year events upending what seems like a strong correlation between approval ratings 14 months out and the final result. One prime example: George H. W. Bush. The elder Bush held a dominant 70 percent approval rating in September 1991 following a successful military campaign in Iraq, but that shimmer wore off fast on poor perceptions of the economy, fueling Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy and Bush’s1992 loss to Clinton.

The famous 1948 election illustrates the opposite scenario. Harry Truman held a strong 55 percent approval rating at this point in 1947. But Truman’s ratings dropped as low as 36 percent during the election year, facing an anti-war Democratic primary challenge and internal party strife with the Dixiecrat movement.

What approval ratings can tell us

Simply enough, that Obama will not have an easy road to a second term. More than four in 10 voters say they definitely will not support him, and almost one in five of his 2008 supporters disapprove of the job he’s doing, according to The Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. But if the public is upset with Obama, they’re even less impressed with congressional Republicans; 68 percent disapprove of their job performance in the Post-ABC poll.

If Obama can convince voters that he’s fighting to improve the economy and Republicans are getting in his way, his chances improve. He seems to be honing in on that argument. After introducing his American Jobs Act to Congress last Thursday, Obama said he will take his message “to every corner of the country.” Whether he will “give ’em hell” all the way to reelection, like Harry Truman, is yet to be seen.

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By  |  04:23 PM ET, 09/15/2011

Categories:  Barack Obama, Presidential Approval

 
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