A reality check for POTUS’s critics about his odds of winning again in 2020. The numbers have been strikingly consistent among the last four presidents in year two of their terms when Gallup asked voters if they deserve reelection. Trump pulls 37 percent right now, the same number as Barack Obama did in October 2010 and just a point lower than Bill Clinton pulled in October 1994. The only outlier is Dubya, who was still surfing the tide of post-9/11 national goodwill to the tune of 60 percent on this question in September 2002.
By the time each man came up for reelection, though, their fortunes had reversed. Obama and Clinton won a second term easily while Bush scraped his way to a narrow victory over John Kerry. And their fortunes kept trending in opposite directions over their second terms. Obama and Clinton each left the presidency with high approval (59 percent for O, 66 percent for Bill) while Dubya collapsed to a 34 percent rating in the wake of Iraq and the financial crisis. Trump may never match the two Democrats but only a fool would write off his chances at reelection. The incumbent is always the favorite, basically without exception.
On the other hand, don’t read too much into the Obama/Clinton comparisons:
Trump’s approval ratings have been significantly worse than those of his predecessors at similar points in their presidencies. And his re-elect figures do not match those of Clinton (40% in April 1994) and Obama (46% in March 2010) in the spring of their first midterm election years. However, by the time voters cast ballots in those presidents’ first midterms that fall, the percentage of voters believing Clinton and Obama deserved to be re-elected had fallen to the same level Trump is at now.
Midterm election outcomes are often a referendum on the incumbent president. Clinton and Obama both saw their party suffer huge losses in their first midterm elections, when fewer than four in 10 voters thought they deserved re-election. In 1994, Democrats lost 53 seats in the House, and in 2010, they lost 63 seats.
Yeah, that’s the other thing. If you’re dead set on drawing the Obama/Clinton analogy for Trump, you need to draw it all the way. Bill and O each won reelection for themselves but their poor ratings on the “deserves reelection” question in year two presaged brutal losses in the midterms for their parties. Clinton’s weak support in 1994 helped usher in the Republican wave that retook the House after 40 years. The backlash to Obama and ObamaCare in 2010 brought about a GOP tidal wave that handed the party the House again. If a ~37 percent “deserves reelection” share portends a midterm wipeout, Republicans are in for a whuppin’ this fall.
There’s another question. Is Trump’s approval “locked in”?
I once thought the notion that Trump's approval rating was bounded within a very narrow range was overrated. His approval rating actually did bounce around some in the first 6-9 months of his presidency. But it's been remarkably, uncannily steady so far in 2018.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 23, 2018
You can see the same narrow bounds on RCP’s graph of his job approval. Trump’s numbers are up on average this year from the dregs of last year, when he was down to 37 percent or so at times, but what Silver says is true. Since January, despite many different polls from a variety of pollsters, POTUS bounces around in a narrow band between 40-42.5 percent. Trump is so insanely polarizing that it may be that he can’t really gain *or* lose support. Forty-one or so percent of the public is with him through thick and thin. Everyone else is effectively unpersuadable. That’s a major contrast with Obama and Clinton, both of whom crept towards or above 50 percent approval by the time their reelection year began. In fact, Trump hasn’t reached as high as 44 percent in the RCP average since mid-March of last year. He hasn’t seen 43 percent since two days before he fired James Comey. And all of this is happening in a good economy without any major wars. It’s worth asking: Barring something truly momentous, like a peace deal with North Korea, is 43-44 percent his ceiling? If so, can he get reelected?