Had there never been a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and therefore no 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, the 2016 election cycle might look very different. President Obama, who is currently prohibited from running for reelection, could have run for a third term. And according to Obama, he thinks he could win.
We decided to see if that was true.
Now, please note: There are a lot of assumptions baked into what follows, including that Obama would have won in 2008 against George W. Bush, who presumably would have sought a third term. (Politicians tends to like to stay in office.) If Bush had ever been elected at all, given that he'd probably have faced Bill Clinton in 2000. Except that Bill Clinton might not be president either, since he'd probably have been running against Ronald Reagan, seeking his fourth term in 1992. It's turtles all the way down, I guess is what I'm trying to say.
There hasn't been any polling pitting Obama against the 2016 field that we could find, for obvious reasons. A November 2014 poll from YouGov asked if people wished Obama could run again; only one in five said yes. (That includes 39 percent of Democrats.) But that's taking place in this world, not presidents-are-always-running-for-third-terms world. So let's compare where Obama is now with where he was at this point in 2011.
Overall, Obama's approval rating is about the same as it was back then.
Which makes sense. Obama's approval has been pretty steady for a long time, because Democrats love him and Republicans hate him and independents make up all of the change.
The one recent exception was in the run-up to the 2012 election. Obama currently polls at about the same position as he did four years ago. His reelection was thanks in part to the big uptick in support from Democrats and independents as Election Day 2012 approached.
Which we can't predict now, of course. He had to go through a whole campaign to see that happen.
We can look at other things to potentially provide some insight. As 2012 approached, FiveThirtyEight looked at the economic indicators that have been good at predicting election outcomes. Two stood out, with the important caveat that the pool of examples from which to choose was small. The first was the ISM manufacturing index, a bit of data that tracks the health of the manufacturing sector. The other was the rate of change in employment.
The picture for the latter data looks better than it did in 2011. Looking at year-over-year change as a percentage, the number of jobs added is more than at this point in 2011.
But ISM offers some warning. The year-over-year change in the index (in points, not percent) looks similar to this point in 2011. But it fell and then rose and then fell as Election Day approached. The warning? Who knows what will happen with jobs in 2016.
Other experts point to real personal income as a guide. Compared to the year prior, that spiked in 2012. For now, we're again about where we were four years ago.
The moral of the story, as is so often the moral in presidential politics, is that it is too early too tell who will win next year -- which holds for Barack Obama as well as it does for any other candidate. He's positioned similarly to 2011. But a lot could have happened between July 2011 and November 2012 to affect his chances then, too.
One last thing worth noting. If favorability is any guide, the re-re-nomination of Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee is in pretty good shape.