Whit Ayres: History puts poll numbers in context


Guest column by Whit Ayres.

Both long-term and short-term forces determine the outcome of U.S. presidential elections. Long-term forces include the state of the economy, voters’ satisfaction with the direction of the country and the level of stability in world affairs. Short-term forces include candidate speeches, political ads and presidential debates.

In 2008, the long-term forces — overwhelming dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, fatigue with eight years of a Republican president, fear over the financial meltdown — created an enormous tailwind for Barack Obama. He and his team ran a superb campaign, but the effect of that campaign was far more evident during his Democratic primary win over Hillary Clinton than during the general election. In the general, a mediocre campaign would have defeated John McCain given the forces at Obama’s back.

In 2012, the long-term forces are reversed for President Obama. Three-fourths of voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, unemployment remains a full percentage point higher than the highest a post-Depression president running for reelection has ever survived, and a majority of the country still thinks we are in a recession. Those forces create a strong headwind for the president’s campaign.

As a result of the country’s dissatisfaction, President Obama’s job approval remains below the critical 50 percent threshold. Because most incumbent reelection campaigns ultimately devolve into referenda on the incumbent and his record, many pollsters consider the job approval number to be among the most critical measures of a president’s political standing.

Recent history buttresses the importance of presidential job approval as a predictor of reelection outcomes. Jimmy Carter began his presidency in 1977 with the highest job approval rating of any of the last six presidents who stood for reelection: 69 percent. But by the summer of 1980 he had slid to 35 percent, and he lost the following November in a landslide. (Figures come from Gallup’s quarterly averages.)

Ronald Reagan began his presidency in 1981 at 60 percent. His job approval fell well below 50 percent during the 1982 recession, but he rebounded strongly so that by the summer of 1984, it was back to 55 percent. The following November, he won reelection in a landslide.

George H.W. Bush began his presidency in 1989 at 57 percent job approval. His number soared to 89 percent during the first Gulf War, but the recession of 1992 caused his approval to enter a long and sustained slide. By the summer of 1992, it was down in Jimmy Carter territory at 35 percent, and he lost the following November by 5.5 percentage points.

Bill Clinton began his presidency in 1993 at the lowest job approval of any of these six presidents at 55 percent. But he experienced less variation than most, and by the summer of 1996, he inched up to 57 percent. The following November he won by 8.5 percentage points.

George W. Bush began his presidency in 2001 at 58 percent job approval, after which he soared to 90 percent in the wake of Sept. 11. A long, downward trend followed that peak, putting him right at 50 percent in the summer of 2004, after which he won a narrow reelection victory by 2.4 percentage points.

In other words, presidents whose job approval stood at 50 percent or above the summer before their reelection won, and those below 50 percent lost.

So where is Barack Obama in historical perspective? Most polls put him between 45 and 49 percent. During the last week of June 2012, Gallup’s three-day rolling average and the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls both stood at 48 percent. He falls short of the minimum history suggests is needed for reelection, but stands well above those presidents who fared poorly in their reelection efforts.

That is why so many observers of American politics expect a very close election. Obama faces strong headwinds — strong enough to eliminate the 7-percentage-point margin by which he won election in 2008. Unforeseen events in either the economy or world affairs could alter the electoral climate. Short-term forces could be crucial — debate performances, gaffes and allocation of campaign resources among swing states could all affect the outcome.

And the consequences are enormous. Few doubt that the course of the country will be dramatically affected by who wins the presidency. For those of us who love politics, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Ayres is a Republican strategist and founder and president of Ayres, McHenry & Associates.