A weird tidbit from the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll: Fifty-six percent of Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing. And 56 percent think that the next president needs to take the presidency in a totally new direction. This is what you hear when you're being laid off: You were doing good work, but we're going in a new direction. Which fits: Obama will be laid off Jan. 20.
The question, four months before the general election, is What This Means™. What Does This Tell Us® about the state of the presidential race? Does it tell us anything? To answer that, we can look at past elections.
The Washington Post and our polling partners have asked the question in five of the past seven elections, as well as in our most recent survey with ABC News.
The bolded entries are the years in which the incumbent president's party won: 1988 and 2004. In both of those cases, the net split between new direction/same direction was about the same as it is now for Obama. In 2004, George W. Bush won reelection despite a majority of voters wanting the winner of the election to not act like the guy who won the election.
In 1992 and 2008, there was a much bigger split in the preference for a new direction — and in each case, the incumbent president's party lost.
But then there's 2000, the one year that people preferred the existing president's path on net. That year, Bill Clinton's incumbent party lost — or, at least, lost the Electoral College vote.
One aspect of this year's results that's different is that Obama is relatively popular. When we asked the direction question in the 2000 poll, Clinton's favorability rating (not approval rating, mind you) was 46 percent. In 2004, Bush's approval was 49 percent — but that slipped to 32 percent in 2008, the year that calls for a new direction spiked.
What's happening is that a lot of Democrats want a new direction in the White House, even as they praise the job Obama has done.
In 2008, Republicans wanted a new direction from the next president, despite the sitting president being a member of their party. Otherwise, in polling since 2000, the sitting president's party has wanted to stay the course and the opposition to set a new path. It only makes sense.
In the new poll, 30 percent of Democrats want the next president to take the country in a new direction — a figure that matches up neatly with the average of Democratic primary voters who said in exit polls that they hoped the next president would be more liberal than Obama. (Nearly 7 in 10 of those voters backed Bernie Sanders.) Thirteen percent of Democrats wanted a less liberal president than Obama.
Obama's net approval among Democrats right now is plus-78, compared with plus-59 net favorability for Clinton from his party in 2000. The figures among Republicans for Bush were plus-63 approval rating in 2004 and a brutally low plus-38 in 2008. Obama is more popular than those presidents, generally, thanks in part to how positively his party views him.
But while Democrats were 46 points more likely to support staying the course that Clinton set in 2000 and Republicans were 45 points more likely to seek the same from Bush four years later, Democrats are only 33 points more likely to want to continue the path that Obama has set than to seek a new path forward.
Fine, fine. But let's get back to the only question that matters: Who will win in November? As always, the correct answer is that we don't really know. In this case, we can say that these figures alone seem to favor the Democrat. John McCain in 2008 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 faced a huge demand for a new direction from the president, and each lost.
Except, you know, for 2000, when Clinton's broad popularity didn't translate to success for Al Gore. It's more than possible that his popularity won't mean a whole lot for the Democrat this year, either.