That’s apparently what happened for five of the last eight incumbent presidents who ran for election after already holding the job. There was no poll for presidential job approval rating within a couple of months of Nixon’s reelection campaign, but he received a 62 percent job approval rating just days after he won 60.7 percent of the vote. President Gerald Ford’s most recent pre-election job approval poll was in June 1976, when he received a 45 percent rating. By December, after he had lost, his rating had risen to 53 percent. His actual share of the vote, 48 percent, sits comfortably between these two benchmarks. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each received almost exactly one percentage point more in the popular vote than their final pre-election job approval rating.
Trump would clearly lose reelection today if that pattern repeated itself. He currently has a 43.3 percent job approval rating in the RealClearPolitics average. That translates to less than 45 percent of the national vote if the election were held today. The composition of his coalition means he does not need to win the popular vote to get reelected, but there is no scenario where he can lose by eight to 10 percentage points and still win an electoral college majority.
So Trump’s reelection hopes rest on two factors: First, he has to raise his job approval rating. That is possible. It stood at a two-and-a-half-year high of 45.3 percent in the RCP average on Sept. 24, the day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her support for his impeachment. After dropping to a low of 41.6 percent on Oct. 26, it has already regained nearly half of the ground he lost. This is a recurring pattern in Trump’s career: His ratings rapidly decline when unusually bad news hits only to rapidly return to or exceed their pre-news levels. His ratings had been slowly but steadily rising over the past year’s boom and bust cycles. If he is not removed from office, it’s distinctly possible he could get his job approval to 46 or 47 percent by next November.
That’s the key level for him to begin to think he has a decent chance at reelection. Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman believes Trump could lose the popular vote by four to five percentage points next year and still win an electoral college majority. Since third party and write-in candidates will likely get a minimum of 2 percent next year, that means Trump would be in Wasserman’s winning zone if he gets 47 to 48 percent. And that’s exactly what we would expect him to get if his job approval rises to 46 or 47 percent.
Trump can also take hope from the outliers to the presidential pattern, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Both were even more unpopular right before the election than Trump is today, but they received significantly higher shares of the vote than their job approval rating. Only a third of Americans approved of Carter’s performance in Gallup polls taken between July and September 1980, but he got 41 percent of the vote. The elder Bush had a job approval rating of only 34 percent right before the election but received 37.5 percent. Obviously, if Trump could imitate those men’s performances, he could win even with job approval ratings as low as they are today.
Team Trump clearly thinks that’s possible. Carter’s opponent, Reagan, scared many voters because of his strong conservative views, while Bush’s reelection campaign was helped by rumors of extramarital affairs and Bill Clinton’s quintessential baby boomer past (smoking pot, not serving in Vietnam) in that more culturally conservative time. Trump’s squad would argue that these scary or unpalatable opponents were why Carter and Bush outperformed their job approval ratings by so much. Enter Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is behind or tied with Trump in all but one of the key swing states likely to elect the next president.
I would not want to be in Trump’s political position right now, but I also would not have wanted to be in the Washington Nationals’ position on May 22. They had a 19-31 record then and had poor chances of even making the playoffs. Like the Nats then, Trump is down but far from out. To see what happens next, we have to play the games.