Does Obama's New Popularity Doom Trump?

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A new CNN/ORC poll finds President Barack Obama’s approval rating has risen to at 55%. That’s highest of Obama’s second term, and matches his best approval rating since the first year of the Obama Presidency.

Jennifer Agiesta, CNN Polling Director, reports that a year ago Obama’s approval rating was about 10 points lower than it is today. While the improvement in Obama’s numbers is across age groups and gender lines, and from all geographic regions, there are partisan and racial differences:

He’s up 12 points among Democrats to 89% approval and 14 among independents to 56% approval, but his numbers have barely budged among Republicans, 11% approved in September 2015 and 13% approve now.

And there’s a racial gap as well, with improvement coming among whites and Hispanics, but ratings of Obama holding steady among blacks. Among whites, his approval rating remains in negative territory but has climbed from 32% a year ago to 47% now. Non-whites have held mostly steady — 68% approved then and 70% do now.

According to Agiesta, Obama’s approval among black voters remains at 86% identical to a year ago. But Obama’s approval has increased six points among Hispanics to 6 percent, up from 6 percent last fall.

The CNN/ORC Poll was conducted by telephone September 28 through October 2 and has margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Gallup also finds that Obama’s approval rate has improved. According to Gallup polling, it  has increased six points, from 46 percent in October 2015 to 52 percent last month. Gallup attributes the increase to Conservative Democrats:

His ratings have risen among most party and ideological groups, but his largest gain — 13 percentage points — has come among conservative Democrats. Regardless of their ideology, Republicans’ opinions of Obama are virtually unchanged.

According to Gallup, the six-point improvement in Obama’s job approval rating over the past year is similar to the seven point increase in Obama’s approval before his 2012 reelection, which Gallup also attributed to Conservative Democrats:

These trends indicate that opinions of the president become more politicized during a presidential election year, a time when Americans’ partisanship is continually reinforced by news coverage and discussion of the campaign. Conservative Democrats likely agree less with a liberal Democratic president’s policies and actions than moderate or liberal Democrats do. As a result, they may be less inclined to approve of the job he is doing in nonelection years when political news coverage may be focused more on what the president is doing in office and less on party politics. When the discussion turns to re-electing the president, or choosing his successor, as is the case this year, a person’s attachment to the political party becomes more influential than other considerations in how they evaluate the president’s performance.

Both CNN and Gallup compared the increase in Obama’s approval rating to that of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s job approval ratings pushed above 50% in 1988, creating a favorable political environment for George H.W. Bush to win the political equivalent of a third Reagan term.

Obama’s reclaimed popularity is bad new for Donald Trump. In January 2015, Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, explained why such an improvement in Obama’s popularity could impact the 2016 presidential election:

The fate of the incumbent party’s candidate is strongly influenced by the popularity of the outgoing president. In fact, the incumbent president’s approval rating explains over half of the variance in the vote share of his party’s nominee. All three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 50% were defeated, and the two seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 40% were decisively defeated. In contrast, two of the three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings above 50% won the popular vote, although one of those candidates, Al Gore in 2000, ended up losing the electoral vote.

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According to Abramowitz, the data in the table above indicates that Obama’s approval rating and the outcome of the 2016 presidential election are linked. With Obama’s approval above 50 percent is an indicator that the Democrat nominee should be favored. Abramowitz left us with an important caveat, “if either party nominates an unusually appealing or unappealing candidate or runs an exceptionally effective or inept campaign,” the predictive capacity of a the president’s approval could be diminished.

With Hillary and Trump being the most unpopular nominees ever, Obama’s renewed popularity may not have the anticipated impact on the Presidential campaign. It may offer hope to Hillary’s campaign, but it doesn’t necessarily doom The Donald’s Campaign.