Presidential job-approval numbers are the most common way to measure the chief executive’s popularity. But sometimes pollsters also ask what is known as a “reelect” question about whether voters want another term for the pol in question, or would prefer somebody else. With some less-well-known incumbents the “reelect number”can be an indication of potential vulnerability in a campaign that’s just on the horizon. With presidents it tends to be just another way of presenting the same information.
Gallup, best known for its comprehensive database of presidential approval ratings across the decades, threw the chattering class a bit of a curve this week with a “reelect” number for Trump which it then compared to numbers at the same juncture for Presidents Clinton and Obama. Here’s how National Review presented the findings:
The percentage of voters who believe that President Trump should receive a second term is nearly identical to the percentage of voters who thought the same about former presidents Obama and Clinton at the same time in their presidencies, according to Gallup.
37 percent of registered voters believe Trump should be reelected, per Gallup’s April 9–15 poll. 37 percent believed President Obama should be reelected and 38 percent thought President Clinton should be reelected at the same point in their first terms.
Actually, the numbers above compare Trump today with Obama and Clinton in October of their midterm years, but that’s a quibble. Republicans are undoubtedly taking cheer from the suggestion that Trump is no worse shape heading toward the midterms than were two presidents who won second terms. But there are a couple of problems with that way of looking at it.
For one thing, as Greg Sargent points out, Obama and Clinton were heading toward cataclysmic midterm elections, with Democrats losing 63 House seats in 2010 and 53 House seats in 1994. If Trump’s in exactly the same boat, he will be looking down the barrel of investigations from the various committees of a Democratic House next year, and last year’s GOP legislative record will look dazzling by comparison.
But the other thing is that in their midterm election years both Obama and Clinton were in a popularity slough that came after bright beginnings and led to a reasonably quick rebound as the reelection year approached. Looking again at Gallup approval ratings (the only consistently measured data for presidents), Trump has never topped 50 percent. Clinton spent a majority of his presidency at over 50 percent. Obama was as high as 67 percent, and spent most of his first year in the presidency above 50 percent. So taking a snapshot now and suggesting Trump could well have the same trajectory toward reelection as these two predecessors is sort of like comparing two injured athletes to someone who has never gotten on the field of play. Yeah, they’re all equally ineffective right now, but who is likely to bounce back and star in a game and who is likely to keep sitting on the sidelines?
The answer is pretty obvious. Sure, anything could happen, but at this point we have never seen a popular Donald Trump. Even on the day he was elected president, his percentage of the popular vote fell between the percentage won by John Kerry in 2004 and Mike Dukakis in 1988. Since then it’s been mostly downhill. Of course he can be reelected under the right set of circumstances, but at this point it remains unlikely. Comparing some of his best moments of (relative) popularity to some of his predecessors’ worst does not make a very compelling case for being sanguine about either 2018 or 2020.