Trump Is Down, but Far from Out
Published in The Washington Post
on November 6, 2019
With a little bit less than a year to go before the presidential election, polls suggest President Trump is down — but far from out.
Forget all those head-to-head trial heats. While they are interesting and, in some cases, provide important clues, history provides a clearer guide to whether a president gets reelected — specifically regarding job approval ratings. Going back to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection effort, the data show that an incumbent president almost always gets a share of the popular vote within one or two percentage points of his final pre-election job approval rating.
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.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.