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Early polls don't always foretell the fate of a first-term president. Does anything?

President Joe Biden speaks during an event on the campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Va., on Jan. 23, to campaign for abortion rights, a top issue for Democrats in the upcoming presidential election.
Susan Walsh
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AP
President Joe Biden speaks during an event on the campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Va., on Jan. 23, to campaign for abortion rights, a top issue for Democrats in the upcoming presidential election.

Presidential approval numbers, like swimmers, cause alarm if they stay underwater too long.

President Biden's approval numbers in the Gallup Poll have been "underwater" – meaning they have been below 50% — since August of 2021, his seventh month in office.

His Gallup has fallen as low as 37% at several points in the past 18 months, including his readings for October and November 2023. Biden's approval was 40% in the latest NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll in December. The average of national polls calculated by 538.com had Biden below 40% for most of January.

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That's not just underwater, it's deep underwater.

Since modern polling began, the first-term presidents who were unable to reach 50% approval at any point within a year of their next Election Day have not won a new term.

Examples of those who were denied reelection include one-term Presidents Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), George H.W. Bush (1992) and Donald Trump (2020).

By that same token, incumbents who had better than 50% approval with a year to go to reelection have usually won – and often won easily. Think of Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004.

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So 50% in the polls has become more than just another reference point. Yet there's not really any predictive magic in that number or in polls in general.

Since World War II, four presidents have managed to win reelection after dipping below 50% approval in the Gallup at least once with a year or less to go to their moment of reelection truth: Harry Truman, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Conversely, some incumbents who had at least briefly been above 50% in their final year were soundly beaten in November — including Carter and the first President Bush.

It is also worth noting that two incumbents who only barely broke above the 50% line when reelection was a year away still managed to emerge as landslide reelection winners. In the most salient examples, Republican Presidents Nixon and Reagan, who looked vulnerable to a pack of noteworthy Democratic challengers in the primaries of 1972 and 1984, each went on to sweep 49 states in winning another term.

Where else to look?

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Election years tend to be dynamic, with incumbent presidents dominating the news – for good or ill. And fate has a way of taking a hand, as world events and domestic economic trends often weigh heavily in the November outcome.

The classic case of defying the odds and the oddsmakers was the shock reelection of Harry Truman in 1948. His approval number was still above 50% with a year to go, but it tumbled all the way to 36% in April of 1948.
Byron Rollins / AP
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The classic case of defying the odds and the oddsmakers was the shock reelection of Harry Truman in 1948. His approval number was still above 50% with a year to go, but it tumbled all the way to 36% in April of 1948.

If presidential approval numbers are not perfect predictors of an incumbent's reelection, is there something else that is? Observers have long sought the True North by which to set their compass and their expectations.

Pollsters have often used some version of the question: "Are things in this country generally going in the right direction or have we gotten off on the wrong track?" While the negative answer is always more popular, the width of the gap between "right direction" and "wrong track" has been a rough guide to the fate of the incumbent president for at least the past 40 years.

Popular election prognosticator Charlie Cook published a chart in July 2020 citing data from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing a strong correlation between the width of that gap and the presidential outcome. It showed the "wrong track" answer was chosen by an average of 70% and "right direction" by just 23% in the five most recent presidential election years when the president (or his party) lost. The gap had averaged 46 points in those years (1980, 1992, 2000, 2008 and 2016).

When the numbers for "wrong track" and "right direction" were closer to even, the results were quite different. The two responses were just 7 points apart (49% to 42% on average) in the five election years when the incumbent (or his party) actually won (1984, 1988, 1996, 2004 and 2012).

But it is worth noting that while this polling question did predict the outcome in the Electoral College, it twice failed to predict the winner of the popular vote. "Wrong direction" was the leading answer by 18 points in 2000 and by 31 points in 2016, years in when nominees of the incumbent party (Democrats Al Gore and Hillary Clinton) both won the popular vote.

More recently, in 2022, this same question and a similar one about voters' general sense of satisfaction (a question asked by the Gallup Organization) have consistently found 70% or more saying "wrong direction" or "dissatisfied." That seemed a sure sign of a "red wave" of Republican victories in that year fall's midterm elections — a wave that failed to materialize.

In 2016, William Jordan, U.S. elections editor for the YouGov polling organization, published an analysisquestioning the value of the right direction/wrong track question as an election predictor. His point was that "wrong track" responders tended to blame different factors (and parties) for what was wrong. Moreover, such responders did not agree on what the "right direction" would be.

Confidence in economics?

Yet another way of gauging the national attitude toward an incumbent president is to shift the focus of measurement from the voter to the consumer. While it is the largest economy in the world, the U.S. economy is still consumer-driven and dependent on the relative willingness of ordinary citizens to buy goods and services.

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That willingness is rooted in necessity, of course, but also driven by ability to pay and faith in the future. No surprise, then, that rising consumer confidence coincides with rising confidence in government and especially in the nation's chief executive.

The University of Michigan has been compiling statistics and calculating an index of confidence on the part of American consumers since the mid-1970s, a time when that level of confidence was at the center of national politics. Ford, who took office when Nixon resigned in 1974 under threat of impeachment, struggled to manage a weak hand on several economic fronts. Energy costs were surging, employment growth was stagnant and inflation was approaching double digits.

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So consumer confidence, which had climbed when Nixon was president, slid to 75.6 on the 100-point University of Michigan scale in the final quarter of 1975. That number improved somewhat in 1976, the year Ford was seeking a election to a term in his own right. But it was too late and too little to save him.

Carter, the man who replaced him, was also beset by energy shortages and inflation and the consumer confidence index fell to 63.3 one year before he was to face the voters – and Reagan, his opponent.

Initially, Reagan struggled with the same mix of economic problems his predecessors had. But as his reelection year approached, high interest rates and recession had finally corralled inflation. The pain of these policies had begun to ease, Reagan's tax cuts were popular and business was picking up. The Michigan index hit 91.1 when Reagan was one year away from reelection.

The boom years lasted long enough to boost Reagan's vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, in 1988. But they did not last for Bush himself. The consumer confidence number was just 69.1 by November 1991, when voters were first learning the name of Bill Clinton, who 12 months later would make the first Bush a one-termer.

These examples suggest the consumer confidence number is at least as potent a predictor as the approval polling. But here again, the intrusion of other factors and the dynamics of the election year itself can change the picture dramatically.

The second President Bush had a Reagan-like consumer confidence metric of 93.7 in November 2003, yet barely won a year later with the narrowest reelection margin of any president since 1916). Trump, too, was sailing along with a dizzying 96.8 consumer confidence index one year before losing to Biden by 7 million in the popular vote. The difference was COVID and all that followed.

Biden can look to the consumer confidence index for two notes of encouragement. One is that his weak index of 61.3 in November 2023 has improved since, jumping to 69.7 in December as gas prices moderated and other economic indicators improved. The other is that Obama, the last Democratic president to win reelection, did so one year after his consumer confidence index had been just 63.7. It went up most months in 2012, including a well-timed bump up over 80 in the month before the election.

Other guideposts in economics: jobless numbers

Another option is to correlate presidential prospect with certain economic measures that can be presumed to be weighing on voters' minds.

Perhaps most prominent among these is the unemployment rate compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It measures the percentage of able-bodied workers currently without a job but seeking employment. The so-called "jobless number" appears on the first Friday of each new month, often to great fanfare as to its political as well as economic significance.

Elevated jobless numbers are a bad omen at the start of a president's reelection year. But several incumbents have managed to overcome them. Going back half a century, first-term presidents seeking reelection have had unemployment rates that averaged 6.3 percent one year out from Election Day.

But incumbents whose number was higher than that average have been reelected no less often than those whose number was lower. A year out from their reelection test, both Obama and Reagan had unemployment figures above 8%, twice as high as the postwar average of 3.5%

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One reason both Reagan and Obama survived was that both were seen as hauling the economy back up out of serious recessions. Reagan saw unemployment go above 10% for the first time since the Great Depression. Obama came to office just as the U.S. economy was sliding into what would be called the Great Recession. But both could point to growth (Obama at 4.6% and Reagan at a rip-roaring 8.6%).

Both Reagan and Obama could tout lower inflation. Reagan inherited double-digit inflation from Carter, but he also kept the inflation-fighter Paul Volcker in place as Federal Reserve Board Chairman.

Even the sky-high mortgage rates of the 1970s and early 1980s were beginning to decline as Reagan was wrapping up his first term. They would soon fall to single digits and continue downward to the sub-4% territory they reached in the Obama and Trump years, before government spending to counter the effects of the COVID-driven downturn reignited inflation. That inflation shot up in Biden's first years in office, but a Volcker-like clamp-down by the Fed once again proved effective. Biden was able to begin his reelection campaign with inflation numbers comparable to Reagan and Obama's at the same point in their presidencies.

The "misery index"

Rate hikes by the Federal Reserve Board slammed the brakes on inflation in 2023 and raised fears of a recession. While a downturn has yet to develop, the possibility of one conjures memories of the low-growth/high-inflation "stagflation" of the 1970s that proved fatal to the presidencies of Ford and Carter.

Running against Ford in 1976 Carter highlighted something he called the "misery index," a simple combination of the jobless and inflation rates. When Ford was one year away from Election Day the combined "index" was 15.7% and a heavy burden indeed. Four years later, entering his own reelection year, Carter would be looking at a misery index of 18.5% Biden at similar low point was 6.8% and Trump was a full point lower still.

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With a November 2023 jobless number of 3.7%, Biden was approaching the postwar average — usually a marker of good things ahead. But is he is getting little credit for it, in part because of the inflation that flared and persisted during his term. For many Americans it was their first real dose of what inflation can do.

"These are challenging times for forecasting," according to Stanford Economics Professor Neale Mahoney, who notes the improving health of the actual U.S. economy has not been reflected in public opinion.

"The rise of social media as a prominent information source — with its tendency to amplify bad news — may be fraying the link between economic fundamentals and consumer sentiment," Neal has written. "The partisan factors we document may intensify as the November election approaches."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.