One of the most popular ways for pundits to evaluate the president’s chances of reelection is to offer historical comparisons of presidential poll numbers (He’s doing worse than Reagan! But better than Carter! Whatever that means!).
Here at DCDecoder, we appreciate having all the data laid out in one place. Below, we list the approval ratings of all modern presidents at this same point in time - or as close as possible - heading into their reelection year, and whether they went on to win or lose. All the data is from Gallup.
(Note: We know Harry Truman’s 1948 election wasn’t technically a reelect, but we think it counts since he’d been president for nearly a full term beforehand. We also think LBJ’s ratings going into the 1968 election are a worthy comparison, despite the fact that he didn’t seek reelection, since his decision was at least partly influenced by his weakened public standing. We included Gerald Ford and John Kennedy as well, just to make the list complete.)
Barack Obama (9/18/11) 40%
George W. Bush (9/10/03) 52%
Bill Clinton (9/17/95) 44%
Ronald Reagan (9/12/83) 47%
Richard Nixon (10/11/71) 52%
Dwight Eisenhower (9/20/55) 71%
Harry Truman (9/17/47) 55%
George H. W. Bush (9/15/91) 68%
Jimmy Carter (9/10/79) 30%
Gerald Ford (9/15/75) 45%
Did Not Run
John Kennedy (9/17/63) 55%
Lyndon Johnson (9/14/67) 37%
The upshot? No one with a rating as low as Obama’s at this point in time has gone on to win reelection. And one with a significantly higher rating - George H. W. Bush - went on to lose.
It’s worth noting that big swings are still possible. Jimmy Carter’s approval rating went all the way back up to 58% in January of 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But that was an aberration - by March it had returned to the high 30s. George H. W. Bush’s approval rating, on the other hand - still riding high at this point in 1991, thanks to the Gulf War - went steadily downward after that, hitting a low of 29 in August of 1992.
- Compare presidential approval ratings back to Harry Truman with Gallup’s presidential approval tracker.