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

The pattern: 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.

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

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.

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(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. 

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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.