After years of blistering attacks by the left, a new comparison of President Trump’s polling numbers with past presidents shows that reelection is a distinct possibility. Even though President Trump’s approval rating is still underwater, Presidents Clinton and Obama were reelected with similar poll ratings.
According to an analysis by Gallup, only 37 percent of registered voters believe that Trump should be reelected. This number is almost identical to the ratings of Barack Obama in October 2010 and Bill Clinton in October 1994. Both prior presidents went on to win reelection, but their low approval ratings just prior to midterm elections did presage electoral disasters for their congressional allies.
In 1994, Democrats lost 54 House seats and nine Senate seats to hand Republicans control of both houses of Congress. In the 2010 Tea Party wave, Republicans won 63 seats to gain control of the House, and expanded their Senate minority by six seats.
All three presidents came far short of George W. Bush’s polling just prior to the 2002 midterms. In September 2002, 60 percent of voters said that Bush deserved reelection. The 2002 midterms stand out as a rare election in which the president’s party gained seats in both houses of Congress in an off-year election. Republicans picked up two Senate and eight House seats that year.
Gallup points out that Trump’s approval rating is worse than his predecessors at the same point in their presidencies. Clinton was at 40 percent in April 1994 and Obama was at 46 percent in March 2010. Both presidents saw declines in their popularity as the midterms approached. Clinton was in the midst of the Whitewater scandal and signed a controversial crime bill just prior to the election. Obama was bedeviled by the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus.
It is important to note that there were other factors at play in the reelections of Clinton and Obama. Clinton won only 49 percent of the popular vote, but still won the Electoral vote thanks to the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. In 2012, Obama benefited from several external factors including IRS suppression of opposition groups and a late approval bump from his handling of Hurricane Sandy.
Republican midterm successes in 1994 and 2010 were also based on more than just presidential unpopularity. In 1994, Republicans campaigned on the Contract With America, a promise to vote within 100 days on 10 separate bills that detailed conservative priorities. In 2010, the Republicans promised to repeal the unpopular Affordable Care Act and put the brakes on Obama Administration spending.
So far, in the runup to the 2018 elections, the Democrats have not been able to articulate a positive and popular platform. Democrats have proposed repealing parts of the new tax reform bill in order to pay for a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending and instituting a new gun controls, but neither idea seems to have caught the public’s imagination.
Among Trump’s Republican base, his support is similar to the levels experienced by Obama and Clinton. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans still support President Trump compared to 79 percent for Obama and 71 percent for Clinton. George W. Bush had 93 percent support among Republicans in 2002.
There are still far too many unknowns to accurately predict an election more than two years in the future. Factors that could cause Trump’s approval to skyrocket or plummet include the effect on the economy of tariffs and tax reform, the outcome of peace negotiations with North Korea and potential scandals. Mr. Trump may also face a strong third-party challenger in 2020 that could split the conservative vote.
The Gallup data should not make Trump supporters feel that President Trump’s reelection is assured, but neither is it out of the question. Almost two years into his presidency, Trump is still not a popular figure, but Democrats have not learned how to exploit his unpopularity. Trump partisans can be reassured that most recent sitting presidents have been reelected, but the price may be the loss of Congress.