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Can Trump break this six-decade U.S. election pattern?

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump has never been above 50 percent in a Gallup approval poll since taking office.

How many of the laws of history can Donald Trump repeal? 

I don’t claim to know. And history doesn’t really have “laws” that can be enforced, just precedents and patterns formed by the accumulation of those precedents.

One such pattern, which has held in every election that involved an incumbent president since the emergence of the political polling industry, is this: If the president’s approval rating is “above water,” meaning more approvers than disapprovers, he wins a second term. If the president has a negative approval rating, he loses.

This has been true in 10 out of 10 instances in the era of modern polling, dating back to the 1950s, the era that includes the last 16 presidential elections — including the 10 that involved an incumbent president. In every one of those 10, as I just mentioned, if the president had more approvers than disapprovers, he was re-elected.  If more disapprovers than approvers, he was defeated.

(The pattern starts in the 1950s and doesn’t include 1948, when Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey. Approval polls existed, but weren’t taken very often. Gallup’s last such poll in 1948 showed Truman with a terrible 36 percent approval rating, but that was taken eight months before Election Day. Now we have a zillion pollsters measuring approval/disapproval and get fresh numbers every few days.)

But this is about the six decade pattern, and it fits every instance in which an incumbent president sought a second term.

In 1952, there was no incumbent, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected. In 1956, when President Eisenhower won a second term by defeating Adlai Stevenson, the pattern was born. Eisenhower during 1956 had a very healthy Gallup approval rating (73 percent in Gallup’s last pre-election poll), and he was easily re-elected. 

There was no incumbent in 1960. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, who had become president in November 1962 after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had a high positive approval rating and was re-elected in a landslide. In 1968 there was no incumbent on the ballot. In 1972, President Richard Nixon had a 68 percent Gallup approval rating six months before Election Day and easily won a second term. 

But in 1976, President Gerald Ford sought a full four-year term with an approval rating of 45 percent (as measured by Gallup’s last approval poll before Election Day). Ford was defeated in 1976 by Jimmy Carter. Carter also had a below-water approval ratings (below 40 percent in the last three Gallup readings pre-election) when he sought a second term in 1980, and he was defeated soundly by Gov. Ronald Reagan. But Reagan had a positive 56 percent approval rating in 1984 when he sought a second term and he won easily.

There was no incumbent running in 1988. But in 1992 President George H.W. Bush’s approval had fallen into negative territory, and he lost his re-election bid to challenger Bill Clinton. Clinton came up for re-election in 1996 with very positive approval numbers (Gallup: 60 percent pre-election) and he was re-elected by a comfortable margin. 2000, no incumbent. 2004, incumbent George W. Bush. Positive approval. Re-elected. 2008, no incumbent. 2012? Incumbent Barack Obama was struggling to stay above 50 percent approval, but had substantially more approvers than disapprovers in November of 2012 and was re-elected.

2016, no incumbent. Trump shocks the world by winning, but with neither a majority nor even a plurality of the popular vote.

Trump has never been above 50 percent in a Gallup approval poll since taking office. As I have tracked ad nauseum during his term, he has not only been below 50 but has fairly consistently been about 10 points “under water” (meaning more disapprovers than approvers) throughout his term). Based on that, and claiming no ability to see the future, I expect his approval rating will be below water on Election Day 2020.

Of course, Trump was elected the first time with just 46 percent of the vote, two percentage points less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There are current polls that show Trump trailing some of the Democratic contenders (especially Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders) and leading others. I don’t attach much importance to those, and they will bounce around. 

Whoever is the Democratic nominee, Trump will assign him or her an insulting nickname, like “Crazy Bernie” or “Crooked” (your name here) and, especially if it’s a woman, will attack her looks. 

Trump breaks a lot of rules, including rules of thumb like the one described in this piece, that no president with a below-water approval rating has ever been re-elected. He didn’t break that rule in 2016 because he wasn’t president. The thumb rule applies only to elections in which an incumbent president is on the ballot.

In 2020 Trump will be running as president. The argument is that when there is an incumbent, the election becomes much more of an up-or-down referendum on that incumbent. Approval polls of incumbent presidents are locked into that frame. If Trump cared about that, he would try to turn disapprovers into approvers. But that’s not how he rolls. His strategy will be to take his 40 percent and see if he can find another few million voters, especially in swing states, and get them to view him as the lesser of evils. It may work. If so, the rule of thumb described above suggests, it will be the first time in presidential election history, since the advent of polling.

Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 08/01/2019 - 11:25 am.

    My thinking is more simplistic. He lost the popular vote. After witnessing the past 3 years, I can’t see anyone that didn’t support him in 2016 deciding he’s now the better candidate. Only the vagaries of the Electoral College could save him.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 08/01/2019 - 11:48 am.

      A lot depends on who the Democrats nominate. I can imagine quite a few scenarios where the Democrats overreach, shoot themselves in the foot, and reelect Trump.

      • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 08/01/2019 - 08:53 pm.

        Yep, and they were practicing doing that last night taking as many shots at Obama as at the great leader. Getting together on a health plan should be the first priority and then proposing a commonsense plan on immigration should be next. It won’t be passed into law, but at least stop with the ridiculous stuff.

      • Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 08/02/2019 - 06:13 am.

        Dems more apt to underreach, especially by selected an anointed candidate again.

    • Submitted by Tom Crain on 08/01/2019 - 05:06 pm.

      There’s no reason Trump can’t win with 46% of the vote again. If the Dems run another centrist candidate like Biden, it will be 2016 redux.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/01/2019 - 12:06 pm.

    As long as Donald can use tax dollars to buy farm votes, he has a chance.

    • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 08/05/2019 - 08:15 pm.

      I don’t know about this. As much as “our patriotic farmers” might like getting paid for their labor, they might prefer getting paid by buyers of their produce than getting subsidies by the government. I think there are plenty of farmers that have been burned by the actions of this government – in fact, calling them “patriotic farmers” in itself suggests that they must make serious sacrifices for… well, plausibly for our country, but mostly for our president’s ill-considered actions.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/01/2019 - 12:18 pm.

    The point of the trade war isn’t to carry Minnesota. That’s at most, a diversion. Rather the point is to use our tax dollars in this case called tariff dollars to finance Trump’s re=election campaign in states he does need to carry, principally Ohio and Pennsylvania.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/01/2019 - 12:51 pm.

    I suspect if the Republicans were debating their party candidate all of it would be decided behind closed doors, away from the voters. If anyone gets out of line, they will be publicly humiliated. According to the polls 4 or 5 Democrats could beat Trump. Trump won’t tell you his poll shows the same thing; he just can’t speak the truth. Look for more bizarre behavior to pump up his small cadre of supporters. Forty percent support Trump and fifty five percent can’t wait to vote him out.

    Trump has 508 days left in office to get ANYTHING accomplished for the whole country. I’m not talking the 1% as they have already been taken care of many times over. It is about accomplishment, not talk, bullying, chaos, a ton of phobias, narcissism, corruption, or white nationalism. There is enough time for four cabinets of incompetents to turnover – that is not accomplishment. There is enough time for 400 days of golf – that is not accomplishment. There is enough time for 50 poison pill rallies to feed his ego – that is not accomplishment. There is enough time to complete the transition of his followers into images of Trump – that is not accomplishment. Trump, Moscow Mitch, and the GOP cowards in congress have turned the Republican Party into a Trash Party where anything goes. Blatant racism is okay, debt and deficits are okay, repeal and replace without an alternative is okay, polluted air and water are okay, only serving the top 1% is okay, tax cuts sold to help the middle class, but didn’t, are okay, kids in cages are okay, and the Senate has been turned into a one-man vote. It all boils down to Trump who has sucked the life out of the party because of the cowards in congress handing their authority to Trump. Now the party goes forward without any principles, compassion, ethics, morality, or commitment to the country.

    Then on the other hand, maybe Trump will be impeached. Republican’s will realize they don’t have to cower from Trump anymore. They will become the responsible congress members they once were, and convict Trump. I’m just kidding, I know that is a bridge too far. The country needs the Republican Party, just not this one.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/01/2019 - 01:46 pm.

      “It all boils down to Trump who has sucked the life out of the party because of the cowards in congress handing their authority to Trump. Now the party goes forward without any principles, compassion, ethics, morality, or commitment to the country.”

      I don’t think you’re entirely correct here. Trump is the logical culmination f the direction the Republican Party has been headed for the last three decades, if not longer. The GOP has reinvented itself as the party of resentment. Trump is the heretofore repressed id of the Republican Party.

      Republican s are not cowed by Trump. They see his wide support, and are running with it. Trump supporters aren’t overlooking his many faults, they are embracing and celebrating them. After all, how many times have you heard it said that he is just “saying what I’m thinking”?

      Trump is just the symptom, not the disease.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 08/01/2019 - 02:05 pm.

      It’s rants like this that turn people off from the Dem party.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/01/2019 - 03:43 pm.

        “I’m going to vote for the President I don’t support because you said mean things about him.”

        I can’t put my finger on it, but something about that reasoning seems off to me.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/01/2019 - 03:48 pm.

        Particularly people who never were Democrats, and never will be.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/02/2019 - 08:01 am.

          And who desperately want to rationalize their past and future vote for Trump while doing their all to keep everyone from knowing they support him.

          Led of late by Moscow Mitch McConnell who almost broke down in tears on WED in a Senate speech decrying a cable news host and newspaper columnist for questioning his patriotism and calling it the new “McCarthyism” all the while nodding his head an refusing to say anything about a President who tells a few of his congressional colleagues how they hate America and why don’t you just go back where you came from.

          The single biggest fault in our political system is the enabled ability of politicians to say the craziest crap possible and then never have to answer for it in a forum with credible challenges to what they say. We rack up competent fact checking they just ignore: Make them stand front and center and (1) offer a credible defense of what they said or (2) admit they misspoke. And don’t move on till we get to 1 or 2…

      • Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 08/02/2019 - 06:16 am.

        It seems there is no longer room for making truthful observations about the Dems. That is the turn-off.

  5. Submitted by James Attwood on 08/01/2019 - 02:27 pm.

    Johnson became president in November 1963 not ’62.

  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/01/2019 - 02:30 pm.

    Time for Tom Perez of the DNC to lay down the law to these nitwit candidates: Describe why you are the one to beat Trump, not your perceived advantages over the other candidates.

    The last 2 nights were unlistenable: prattling on how their impossible to achieve plan is better than the other guy’s impossible to achieve plan, and even worse yet, how better than Obama’s actually achieved plan: A total waste of time, accomplishing nothing.

    Tighten up the next debate to get down to 8 eligible candidates then 4 by the time we get to Iowa.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 08/02/2019 - 08:30 am.

      Thanks Edward. Listening to some of these “plans” is about as believable as listening to Trump talk about his “accomplishments.”

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 08/02/2019 - 04:15 pm.

      Amen Edward. The irony is that none of the most far-left plans have a prayer of being implemented into law, if the people proposing those plans continue to act like the votes and opinions of moderate democrats, independents, and disaffected republicans tempted to vote against Trump are irrelevant and treated with contempt, and totally ignored.

      You have to win Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, and so on, to win the presidency, the senate and the house – and you need all three to pass the kind of sweeping legislation being talked about.

      The smart approach I think is to just focus on winning those states in 2020, and then once a major victory has been achieved, THEN when you actually have a big victory under your belt, focus on trying to sell and convince those swing-state voters of the advantages for example of universal health care, with it’s track record of providing higher health outcomes for less than half the cost, in major developed countries around the world.

      And personally, I believe some of the proposed plans, like reparations and eliminating ICE for example, are just bad ideas IMO and will never be accepted, nor should they be, by swing-state voters.

      I think that a lot of these proposals come about by ambition driven candidates pandering for votes by proposing benefits to specific groups (blacks, hispanics, holders of student loan debt, etc), who they hope will then rally to support them personally, and allow them to win the nomination – whether or not the proposals are actually a good idea for the country as a whole or not – and whether or not they have any realistic chance at all of ever actually being passed into law or not!

      They are an example of the dishonest politician’s tactic of saying “I’m going to tell you something you will LOVE to hear members of such-and-such group, so vote for me!”.

      The problem with that is that while it may win votes and support in that specific group, it is very likely to turn-off people who aren’t members of that group, so I think that’s actually probably a NET-NEGATIVE vote-getting tactic, at least in a presidential election where you have a broad and very diverse set of voters.

  7. Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/01/2019 - 03:53 pm.

    A competent Democratic candidate will beat Trump. Someone campaigning on abolishing private health insurance, letting people in prison vote, and abolishing ICE and eliminating borders will not. What I have watched the last couple of bights has been terrible. I’m inclined to vote for Biden at this point.

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 08/01/2019 - 09:48 pm.

      I agree completely Pat.

      Tearing down the Obama/Biden legacy in a desperate attempt for candidates to claw their way higher in the polling, as we saw in night 2 of the latest debates was a golden and valuable gift for republicans, for free.

      If this keeps up, expect to see republican TV campaign ads in 2020, which say something like “This isn’t what I’M saying about my democratic opponent, it’s what other democrats themselves are saying!” followed by video clips of the nasty charges being leveled in these debates.

      Pure gold in terms of attack ad material, again all for free by democratic candidates being blindly driven by personal ambition.

      The general nasty, attacking tone that I believe was started by Kamala Harris in the first debate, and which the rest have now picked up on (and which turned back on her as well last night, karma is a bitch!), is manna from heaven to republicans eyes and ears.

      Trump can just sit back smiling with his Big Mac, with no republican opposition on the republican side, and watch the democratic candidates smear and bad mouth and trash each other until they ALL look like a bunch of scummy jerks that the all-important undecided swing-state voters will be turned-off to vote for.

      It’s nice to learn about past voting patterns as described by Eric Black, but I’d say those patterns probably don’t mean that much if the opposition party, in this case the democrats, are foolishly trotting out very controversial policy positions, policies that will be reacted to unfavorably in the critical swing-states and will provide fertile republican attack ad material and talking points.

      Especially if at the same time they are also viciously tearing each other down and the legacy of the Obama administration as well in these sorry spectacle, cat-fight type TV debates.

      It seems like the democrats, without meaning too, are kind of trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

      The smart play IMO is to LET THE PUBLIC FOCUS BE ON TRUMP, and all his flaws, but instead they are making a trashy spectacle of each other in these debates, while also putting the focus on unpopular, controversial issues like reparations, and as you said eliminating ICE, etc., etc, which swing-state voters are not going to go fo, and will most likely cause undecided voters who are actually not fans of Trump vote for him anyway, as “the lesser of two evils”.

      Because the two parties have become so polarized, far-right against far-left, the choice in 2020 for a lot of critical swing-state voters IMO will probably be, “who do you dislike the least”, and the democrats seem to be trying to make themselves disliked among undecided swing-state voters as much, or more than Trump is disliked!

      I hope they will change their approach to keep Trump the most disliked one, as was the case in 2018 and which led to a retaking of the house by seats flipping to moderate democrats.

      I’d suggest to the democratic candidates, if you feel your way is better than Joe Biden’s fine, explain why in these debates, but let’s not trash him and make him out to be a racist jerk, along with Obama – because like it or not, he might be the one on the ballot 2020 opposing Donald Trump, and do you REALLY want another 4 years of Trump??

      I think before the debates, all the candidates said the most important thing is to get rid of Trump in 2020.

      But now, driven frantically by personal ambition, which does terrible things to many, if not most people, they seem to have unfortunately thrown that out the window.

      I hope that will change, and that as a party, they will decide to keep the public focus on Trump and all his flaws, instead of on viscous attacks on each other, and on controversial policy proposals only approved of in ultra-liberal congressional districts.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/01/2019 - 09:49 pm.

    He has offended everybody he touches or should I say torches. He is gone but his legacy will remain. The gop is a male paternity. The will give their alligence to the dominant one. If the if gop individuals figure that out they drop out of the gop fraternity. As we see many do not. The shift needed is beyond party politics.

  9. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/01/2019 - 09:51 pm.

    Here is a question. Are you sick of the constant stream of lies, hate and broken promises from Donald Trump? If he loses in a landslide, and Republicans lose the Senate we will not have to pay any heed to what he says or does. Instead, we will get see how his army of lawyers tried to fend off criminal charges and civil suits. That is the proper outcome for a man who had undermined American values for personal profit and power.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/01/2019 - 10:17 pm.

    I would think that if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to ignore the polls. On election night, based on their polling, the NY Times was giving Hillary Clinton an 85% chance of winning ad Trump 15%. Matthew Dowd of ABC News gave her a 95% chance of winning.

    That said, Trump will win because most people will find the positions of the democrat candidate unacceptable. It’s true that 43% of registered democrats are self-described socialists, but that isn’t even a majority of democrat voters.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/02/2019 - 01:56 pm.

      Haven’t met a ‘self described socialist’ yet.

    • Submitted by john skogerboe on 08/03/2019 - 01:04 am.

      Almost nothing in your post has any basis in reality or fact. The polls showed Clinton with a 3% lead, which was borne out in the popular vote. Analysts, which are different than polls, showed she was more likely to win. “More likely” doesn’t mean she has a lock on winning.

      And your comment about socialism is made up out of the whole cloth. The correct statistic is that 43% of Americans, not Democrats, believe that *some form of socialism* is good for the country. For the record, “some form of socialism” includes things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, bailouts for banks, the military, and the Interstate Highway system. So, you know, nothing at all like what you said.

    • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 08/03/2019 - 12:30 pm.

      I’m sorry but that is a baseless claim. First of all, do you actually know the differences between socialism and democratic socialism and the term liberal? Probably not. Second, 43% would be almost half of Democratic voters, and that is simply not true. It is true that the party is trending left, but 43% of us don’t even identify as democratic socialists, let alone socialists. Nice try though.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/03/2019 - 01:59 pm.

      Yeah, based on those polls, I thought HRC would win by 3 million votes.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/02/2019 - 08:21 am.

    Mike Schuman and Hiram Foster make legitimate points, I think, but, once again, my thanks to RB Holbrook, especially his 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. The far greater danger to the republic is not Mr. Trump – narcissistic bullies have been around for centuries / millennia – it’s the 40% who share his various prejudices, applaud his bigotry, and who, quite mistakenly, think he’s on “their” side.

    The only “side” he’s on is his own.

  12. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 08/03/2019 - 01:14 pm.

    A lot is going to depend on the nominee, and his/her ability to rouse the 100M eligible voters who sat at home in November 2016, wallowing in their apathy because they couldn’t see the election in terms beyond Hillary v. Trump. Democrats should have easily taken back the Senate in that election, which at the very least would have prevented his super conservative court appointments and insane cabinet appointments (i.e. Betsy DeVos).

    This election can’t just be about the Presidency. Winning back the White House means little if we don’t keep the House (which I don’t think will be a problem) and win back the Senate (which is only narrowly possible at this point). Biden’s lead in the polls has less to do with inspiration and more to do with with “can he beat Trump?” I’m also not interested in any of these sub-zero candidates like Delaney or Bennett who somehow think they will be able to work with Mitch McConnell in a bipartisan way. McConnell has spent a decade proving he’s not interested in that.

    My guess right now is the only candidates who make it into the new year will be Sanders, Biden, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, and Booker, but we will see. Things change, and as fewer candidates make it to each round of debates those who do are going to have to be more prepared. Whoever the nominee is going to have to not only inspire the base, inspire the moderates, inspire the far light and the centrists, they’re going to have to inspire the 100M who stayed home last time.

  13. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/02/2019 - 12:30 pm.

    Tulsi Gabbard is an apologist for Bashar al-Assad. Her foreign policy positions have earned her admiration from unsavory types like Steve Bannon and David Duke.

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