An interesting result, if for no other reason than that Obama’s job approval is strong right now and yet he still trails Trump ever so slightly here — thanks mostly to Democrats, as you can see below. Trump locks up 86 percent of Republicans but O’s at just 81 percent of Dems.
But then, this premise is fatally flawed, isn’t it?
Big problem: How badly is Obama hurt in a hypothetical like this by the fact that we’d be looking at a 12-year presidency (and that it would require the repeal of a constitutional amendment)? The question isn’t so much “Trump or Obama?” as it is “Trump or the first three-term president in more than 70 years?” Eight years of Obama was a lot to take for a conservative; 12 is a lot to take for anyone. Even so, when Morning Consult asked people who they thought would win rather than who they thought should win, Obama came out ahead:
And while it’s a virtual tie over who Americans want to see in the White House, Obama holds a 5-point edge when it comes to who voters think would win if they were able to run against each other. Forty-two percent percent picked Trump, and 47 percent said they thought Obama would win the hypothetical election. Obama’s margin of victory in that matchup is driven mainly by his support among independents, 44 percent of whom backed him, compared with 37 percent who support Trump.
Don’t read too much into that, of course: Hillary probably won every last national poll this past year when voters were asked who they thought would win the election between her and Trump.
There’s probably no way to poll this reliably now but a more interesting question would be Obama versus Trump in 2012, when O wouldn’t have been saddled by the three-term problem. It’s tempting to say he would have won that contest, if not as comfortably as he did when he defeated Romney. Unlike Clinton, he would have had the advantage of incumbency; unlike Clinton, he didn’t have endless scandal baggage, which would have denied Trump any easy “crooked” attack lines; unlike Clinton, he has charisma and knows how to connect with an audience; in addition, black turnout probably would have been higher for the first black president than it was this year (especially since Trump, the Republican nominee, was the country’s most outspoken Birther at the time); and the political climate in 2012 might not have been quite as conducive to populism as it was in 2016, the year of Brexit.
But it’s hard to say. Lefty Bill Scher made the case last week in Politico that, contra liberal expectations, Trump probably would have edged Obama too, although Scher is heavily invested in the “whitelash” theory of this year’s election results. Supposedly white working-class voters would have responded to Trump’s white identity politics just as strongly against Obama, if not more so, as they did against Clinton. If that’s true then Scher is right to think Trump might have upset Obama too: One of the most prescient data analysis of the last campaign was this one from June by Nate Cohn, in which he estimated that Obama’s support among blue-collar whites was actually much stronger in 2012 against Romney than the national exit polls suggested. It wasn’t the black vote or the Latino vote that put O over the top so much as his ability to take a large enough share of the country’s enormous white working-class electorate to deny Romney a victory. Would he have managed to do that against a populist hero like Trump, though? Romney was an easy target for O in that he seemed like the stereotypical rich country-club Republican, leaving him vulnerable to class appeals from a candidate like Obama with more of a common touch. Trump, by contrast, would have matched that common touch and then some. If Trump could have clawed some of those white working-class votes away from O and convinced others to stay home, Obama would have been in trouble.
It would have been a tighter election for sure. Could Trump have tipped Florida, which Obama won by less than one point? Surely. Could he have tipped Ohio, which O won by less than two points and Trump won by eight(!)? Most definitely. That would have given him 253 electoral votes, including the 206 that Romney won. All he would have needed to win the presidency was Pennsylvania, which Obama won by five. Alternately, he could have won with Michigan plus either Wisconsin or Iowa, all of which went to Trump this year but went comfortably for Obama in 2012 by margins ranging from 5.5 to 9.5 points. Iowa certainly seems doable given the number of white working-class voters there but MI and WI are the great mysteries, as Trump won both only very narrowly. That would have been some election night. Oh well.