Presidential Approval in 1994 and 2010 as Indicator of Voter Preference

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Many describe 1994 as a referendum on the presidency of Bill Clinton and some are describing this years midterms as a similar referendum on Obama. If it is a referendum on the President, than there should be some connection between the job approval numbers of President Clinton and President Obama as they relate to potential losses in the House of Representatives. Those indicators, however, prove deficient.

In 1994, ABC News exit polls showed that President Bill Clinton’s popularity by region factored heavily how voters felt about the Democratic Party and why 1994 became a referendum on the Democratic Majority in Congress.

ABC News found that President Clinton’s approval relating directly to seats lost:

Northeast – 52 percent approval

Midwest – 45 percent approval

West – 42 percent approval

South – 39 percent approval

In the North, where Clinton was most popular, the Democrats only lost 3 seats in the House. In the South, where Clinton was least popular, the Democrats lost 19 seats.

In Gallup’s daily tracking polls, averaged from January to June, 2010, those 1994 approval ratings are similar to President Obama’s approval ratings:

Northeast – 56.3 percent approval

Midweast – 45.9 percent approval

West – 45.3 percent approval

South – 43.7 percent approval

These numbers are not reflective of the downward trend in approval that the president experienced this summer, but the comparison is still relevant. In August 15 – 16, 1994, Clinton had a 39 to 52 percent approval rating in Gallup. In 2010, between August 14 and 16, Obama’s numbers were similar: 42 to 51 percent.

From August 1st to the 15th, Gallup shows that, among registered independent voters, 47 percent are leaning towards Republicans, while 34 percent are leaning towards Democrats. A full 19 percent are undecided. If those undecideds break evenly for Democrats and Republicans, then the GOP will garner 56.5 percent of the independent vote. ABC News exit polling in 1994 found that exactly 56 percent of independent voters pulled the lever for Republicans. The comparisons continue to show that 1994 is going to be similar to 2010 in many ways.

What is not relevant, however, is presidential popularity relative to House seats lost. ABC’s polling notes that President Clinton’s Democratic Party lost only 3 seats in the Northeast where his approval was highest. Today, Obama is even more popular in the Northeast than Clinton was, but today, according to RCP, there are no less than 8 seats that are currently leaning or likely to go to Republicans in November. There are 10 Northeastern House seats that are too tossups, and it is a reasonable expectation that some of them will break for Republicans as well.

The South has 13 seats already in the lean or likely Republican category and 10 seats in tossup territory. The South transferred 19 seats to Republicans from Democrats in 1994 so this comparison is slightly more accurate. However, the congress in the early 1990s included significantly more Southern Democrats, so there may have simply been more territory available to lose.

ABC’s exit polls also found that in 1994, seven in ten voters were dissatisfied with Washington and six in ten dissatisfied with economy. Those numbers are likely to be significantly worse in 2010’s exit polling. An ABC News poll from June, 2010 showed that voter’s level of frustration with government is higher than it has been since 1992. The latest Gallup Congressional Approval poll shows that three in four voters are dissatisfied with Congress. Congressional approval is probably a more accurate indicator of voter preference this year than Presidential job approval.

“To those who would use this election to turn us back, let me say this – I will do all in my power to keep anyone from jeopardizing this economic recovery by taking us back to the policies that failed us before.”

Contrite, jovial but visibly chastened. Determined to achieve a transformative agenda. This was President Clinton’s the reaction to the route the Democratic Party experienced in the 1994 midterm elections. It is not difficult to imagine a similar reaction from President Obama on November 3rd, 2010, if polling data today is correct in indicating a “wave” election for Republicans in this year’s midterm elections.

“There is a lot we can work together on that is consistent with my convictions, consistent with what I believe, consistent with what I have always worked for.”

Now, President Clinton’s reaction becomes slightly divergent from what President Obama’s is most likely to be. Certainly, it is hard to imagine that an incoming Republican congress, should the GOP achieve a majority in the House, will have many items on the agenda that will be consistent with the “convictions” of the111th Congress.

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