According to Gallop, over the past 80 years, of the 12 incumbent presidents who had an approval rating over 50 percent wound up winning a second term, while those under 40 percent, with one exception, went down to defeat.
President Trump’s approval rating is right in the electoral gray zone.
Gallup’s Oct. 27 measurement, it’s most recent, found Trump with an approval rating of 46 percent, a 3-percent rise from the Oct. 15 survey.
Past presidents’ electoral success with similar ratings has been mixed.
Helmut Norpoth, a Stony Brook University political science professor who has studied presidential popularity stated:
“If you look at the approval trend lines in Obama’s and Trump’s first terms, they are actually very similar.
Trump has been a little lower, but not by much. Obama didn’t get over 50 percent in 2012 until just before the election.”
The approval basement-dwellers both lost their re-election bids. George H.W. Bush scored a dismal 34 percent approval in October 1992; Jimmy Carter was at 37 percent in October 1980.
Harry Truman’s Approval Rating was the exception to the rule
In June 1948, with a 40 percent approval rating, he seemed to be a dead president walking. Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican challenger, thought the race was such a lock that he barely campaigned at all.
“That’s when Truman began his famous whistle-stop tour, making about 240 appearances while Dewey made barely 40 — an incredible discrepancy,” Norpoth said.
The result was an election-night shocker and an iconic image: the victorious incumbent lofting an early-edition newspaper that falsely proclaimed, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
“Truman really earned it,” Norpoth said. “What happened was a lot of Democrats were undecided early and were sitting on the sidelines. But Truman’s active campaigning brought them home.”
Hard-Driving Donald Trump vs Sleepy Joe Biden
“If there’s any slack in Republicans’ eagerness to vote for Trump again, that’s clearly where an active campaign could make a difference,” Norpoth said.
But the approval-rating rule of thumb may be a correlation, not a cause, of electoral victory.
Norpoth’s own predictive model for presidential elections correctly identifies the winner of 25 out of the last 27 contests — including every race involving an incumbent. The forecast, based on primary results and other indicators of party cohesion, has never been thrown off by pre-election polls or news events.
The model foresees a 362-electoral-vote Trump victory.
“I guess this is the election that will really put it to the test,” Norpoth said.
Here is the approval rating for President Trump, as well as those of past incumbent presidents during election years:
- Trump (Oct. 27, 2020): 46% won
- Obama (2012): 50%, won
- G.W. Bush (2004): 51%, won
- Clinton (1996): 54%, won
- G.H.W. Bush (1992): 34%, lost
- Reagan (1984): 54%, won
- Carter (1980): 37%, lost
- Ford (1976): 45%, lost
- Nixon (1972): 56%, won
- Johnson (1964): 74%, won
- Eisenhower (1956): 68%, won
- Truman (1948): 40%, won