Is Obama more like Harry Truman or Gerald Ford?

Gallup’s latest data paints a potentially dire picture for Barak Obama, but not one so dire that it prevents Democrats from whistling past the graveyard.

To recap: Obama’s job approval is down to a miserable 38% in the latest Gallup Poll. But Democrats will point to the fact that his personal favorable ratings are still above 50% according to the latest Real Clear Politics average.

And, of course, Democrats will also point to low ratings for Republicans and argue that we’re headed to another Truman vs. “Do Nothing Congress” election.

So what is the truth?

Is Obama in deep trouble facing an electorate where fewer than two-in-five voters think he’s doing a good job?

Or is in relatively good shape facing an electorate where most voters still like him personally?

Fortunately, data analysis allows us to answer these questions without the need of guesswork or speculation. I asked the outstanding analysts at our company, Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, to dissect both the relationship between approval ratings and electoral success and the relationship between personal favorables and electoral success.

Some notes before I detail these data:

  • We’re looking at approval and favorables in the last poll before the election.
  • o One thing we know is that standing in the summer of the off-year doesn’t necessarily determine standing by Election Day.
    • § For example, in the summer of 1991 almost seven in ten (69%) Americans approved of George H.W. Bush’s performance. By Election Day that number dropped to just 34%.
    • § In contrast, Ronald Reagan had a job approval of only 43% in August of 1983. By Election Day 1984, 58% of Americans approved of his performance.
  • o We could compare to popular vote, but in the American system (at present) Electoral votes are what counts.
  • o Data for this question only really goes back to the 1970s.
  • o In comparison, we have Presidential polling data dating back to the 1940s.
  • We are comparing approval or favorables to the percentage of the Electoral College vote a candidate captured.
  • The now standard “favorable or unfavorable opinion” question is a relatively recent innovation in polling.

Now, the data:

First, a plot of Presidential Approval against Electoral College percentage.


While concepts like the trend line and the predictive power of job approval are interesting, sometimes the simplest analysis is the most valuable.

In this case, the result is simple and clear: exactly one President in the past ten who faced Election Day with a job approval below 50% was re-elected—Harry S. Truman in 1948.

Next: personal favorable ratings.


Two things stand out from this analysis:

  1. Personal Approval ratings aren’t as clearly correlated with electoral success as are job approval ratings.
  2. The President with the single highest personal approval ratings in our data set—Gerald Ford—failed to win on Election Day.

So what does all of this tell us? Three important findings:

  1. We don’t know the answer yet.

a. Presidential approval can change substantially over the course of a year and we have more than a year between now and Election Day.

b. While President Obama’s is in deep trouble now, it is too early to make a prediction about his standing next November.

  1. For most Presidents job approval and personal favorables are similar and a poorly regarded President loses while a well-regarded President wins.
  2. While Democrats like to paint the picture that Obama can repeat Truman’s miraculous win of 1948, his ratings of the moment have more in common with Gerald Ford in 1946—a personally well-regarded President whose administration voters have judged a failure and who lost his bid for re-election.

Whether Barak Obama is the next Gerald Ford or if he’s just another President whose failures in office cost him re-election, this analysis suggests that without a substantial achievement to shift public opinion, from a polling perspective Obama looks much more like Gerald Ford than Harry Truman.

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