What History Says About Trump's Re-Election Prospects
Kyle Kondik argued last week that we should probably think of Donald Trump as the favorite in these early stages of the 2020 presidential election cycle. In fact, he makes the case that Trump might even win re-election with his current, still-low approval ratings.
I think that's probably a stretch; if more than half the nation thinks he's done a lousy job, it isn't impossible that he'll win but it seems quite unlikely to me. To be fair, however, we don't really have a lot of good examples. Using the FiveThirtyEight historical estimates, the two elected presidents who lost re-election, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, were under 40 percent approval around Election Day and for most of the months leading up to it. George W. Bush and Barack Obama were right around 50 percent, with both of them somewhat improving leading up to the election, while Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were all quite popular on Election Day. So was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That leaves Gerald Ford as the only real comparable case. Ford's approval rating seems to have been around 44 percent, and he narrowly lost in 1976. But Ford is such an anomalous case that it's hard to weigh it very heavily (there weren't really enough polls taken for the other president during the polling era, Harry Truman, to establish how popular he was before his surprise victory in 1948).
Still, it's hard not to conclude that presidents who are above water are likely to win, while those below water are likely to lose. Trump's net approval is -14, the worst of any polling-age president this many days into his presidency. Nothing is certain, but I'd bet heavily that he'll have to improve on that to win. He has just a bit over two and a half years to make that happen.
The good news for Trump is that significant improvement is certainly possible. How possible? I looked at the range from each of the elected presidents' low points after 456 days in to their subsequent pre-election high point. For example, Obama was at +2 net approval at this point; he dropped to as low as -8.4 in summer 2011; and his pre-election peak after that was +3.1, meaning a recovery of 11.5 percentage points -- the kind of recovery that would get Trump very close to the break-even point.
As for the other recoveries, every president had a rally from their low point after April of their second year that would be large enough to bring Trump to at least a fighting chance to win, and most of them had rallies large enough that would make Trump an easy winner.
What's the catch? Well, there are two, even if we assume Trump has a rally coming. The first catch is he may drop further before that happens. That's what happened to George H.W. Bush, who was quite popular in April 1990, slumped badly, spiked way up, and then collapsed. His eventual recovery wasn't enough, and Bill Clinton beat him easily. The other catch is that a recovery bounce could dissipate. That's the Carter story. After bottoming out in summer 1979, he spiked way up after the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis at the end of that year, but he could not hold on to his gains that winter and was thumped by Ronald Reagan.
So it's way too early to write off the possibility of Trump winning re-election; it's even possible he'll win easily. But there's also more than enough time for him to slump even further. The best models from political scientists mainly tell us that it's way too early to know, one way or another.
1. Sarah Treul and Rachel Porter on successful amateur candidates in the Republican Party.
2. Ray La Raja on the Democrats.
3. Michael C. Horowitz and Joshua A. Schwartz at the Monkey Cage on U.S. drone policy.
4. David Wasserman with another way of looking at vulnerable Republicans in the House.
5. My Bloomberg View colleague Tobin Harshaw interviews Kevin Kosar about the U.S. Postal Service.
6. And Alyssa Rosenberg on experiencing the Trump presidency as a work of fiction.
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