Politics

Bush’s Re-Election Prospects Unclear From Historical View

The 2004 election is being fought against a background of red, blue, and purple. Those are the colors associated with states that are likely to vote Republican, Democratic, or "are up for grabs" between the two parties, respectively. But history suggests that a president's re-election prospects can usually be painted in black and white terms -- presidents with job approval ratings above 50% in their re-election years are re-elected, and (with one exception) those with job approval ratings below 50% are not. But with that as a backdrop, George W. Bush's re-election prospects are shrouded in gray -- his current numbers are neither as positive as those for successful incumbents nor as negative as those for unsuccessful incumbents.

The latest Gallup Poll shows Bush's job approval rating at 48%*. Presidents' approval ratings in the spring and summer of their election years are generally good predictors of whether they will be re-elected. The last five presidents who were re-elected -- Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Dwight Eisenhower -- all had approval ratings above 50% in June of their re-election years. In fact, of those five, Reagan's 54% was the lowest. On the other hand, the three recent presidents who were defeated -- the elder George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford -- all had approval ratings below 50% in June of their respective election years. The only president who bucked these trends and went on to be re-elected was Harry S. Truman, of whom only 39% approved in late May/early June 1948.

Recent Presidents' Approval Ratings in June of Election Years

President Dates % Approval Rating

 

 

 

George W. Bush

2004 June 21-23

48

Bill Clinton

1996 June 18-19

58

George H.W. Bush

1992 June 12-14

37

Ronald Reagan

1984 June 22-25

54

Jimmy Carter

1980 June 13-16

32

Gerald Ford

1976 June 11-14

45

Richard Nixon

1972 June 23-26

56

Lyndon Johnson

1964 June 11-16

74

Dwight Eisenhower

1956 June 15-20

73

Harry Truman

1948 May 28-June 2

39

Just as the successful presidents were comfortably above 50%, the unsuccessful were uncomfortably below 50%. Bush's 48% rating certainly puts him in a bit of uncharted territory.

A perhaps more direct -- but not necessarily more predictive -- measure of a president's re-election prospects is his current standing in a trial heat matchup against his November opponent. Currently, Bush (49%) and likely Democratic candidate John Kerry (48%) are essentially tied among likely voters**. This is actually an improvement for Bush, who had trailed Kerry by six points in the previous Gallup Poll.

The presidents who successfully won re-election (other than Truman) were leading their opponents at this stage of the campaign. In fact, most not only led but did so by wide margins -- Clinton by 16 over Bob Dole, Reagan by 17 over Walter Mondale, Nixon by 16 over George McGovern, Johnson by 59 over Barry Goldwater, and Eisenhower by 28 over Adlai Stevenson.

Not all presidents who lost re-election were trailing at this time, however. Carter still led Reagan in a three-way race with independent John Anderson in mid-June 1980, but by the end of the month, Reagan took over the lead (the contest remained close from thereafter). The elder Bush was essentially tied with Ross Perot at this stage in the 1992 campaign, with Clinton little more than an afterthought. By the end of June and into early July, Bush had regained a lead over the wealthy businessman. But Clinton came storming back after the Democratic convention (helped by Perot's temporary withdrawal from the race), and Bush never regained a lead. Ford trailed Carter badly in June 1976, but he was able to eventually close the gap, and the election wound up being tightly contested.

Presidential Trial Heat Matchups in June of Election Years

President Dates Trial Heat Matchup

 

 

 

George W. Bush

2004 June 21-23

Kerry 50%, Bush 44%

Bill Clinton

1996 June 18-19

Clinton 49%, Dole 33%, Perot 17%

George H.W. Bush

1992 June 12-14

Perot 34%, Bush 32%, Clinton 24%

Ronald Reagan

1984 June 22-25

Reagan 55%, Mondale 38%

Jimmy Carter

1980 June 13-16

Carter 35%, Reagan 33%, Anderson 24%

Gerald Ford

1976 June 11-14

Carter 55%, Ford 37%

Richard Nixon

1972 June 16-19

Nixon 53%, McGovern 37%

Lyndon Johnson

1964 June 11-16

Johnson 77%, Goldwater 18%

Dwight Eisenhower

1956 June 15-20

Eisenhower 63%, Stevenson 35%

Harry Truman

1948 May 28-June 2

Dewey 49%, Truman 38%, Wallace 6%

Truman -- the inspiration for all trailing incumbents -- was down 11 points to Thomas Dewey in late May/early June 1948. Dewey maintained a lead over Truman up until the final Gallup pre-election poll. Truman's late surge was not picked up by the pre-election polls of those days, but it was enough to propel him to an unexpected victory.

Bottom Line

Historical Gallup data show that George W. Bush's re-election prospects are not exactly rosy, but they don't necessarily predict doom for him. His sub-50% approval rating is an ominous sign, as is his failure to hold a lead over Kerry in the latest trial heat. By way of comparison, Clinton did not trail Dole in any poll after February 1996; Reagan did not trail Mondale after late January 1984; and Nixon, Johnson, and Eisenhower did not trail their opponents at any point in their re-election years. But Bush is not as poorly positioned as previous unsuccessful incumbents in terms of his job approval rating, and his standing vis-à-vis Kerry is not the worst incumbents have experienced in an election year.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,005 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 21-23, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

**These results are based on a randomly selected sample of 722 likely voters from the June 21-23 poll. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points.

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/12175/Bushs-ReElection-Prospects-Unclear-From-Historical-View.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030