|Though Clinton's soaring approval ratings seemingly did little to help Gore in 2000, and McCain's popular vote percentage far exceeded the number who approved of the job Dubya was doing, the elder Bush's electoral performance in 1988 closely mirrored public approval of his boss, Ronald Reagan. Photo taken July 1988, courtesy of the Reagan Library.|
President Barack Obama's job approval rating currently sits at about 45/50% per the Real Clear Politics aggregator, 44/50% according to Huffington Posts's Pollster, or 46/49% per TPM Polltracker.
All in all, these are some pretty rough numbers for the President, especially considering where he stood for most of the 2012 election year, and represents one of his worst periods in terms of job approval since the Fall of 2010 and 2011.
Fortunately for Obama, he'll never have to stand before voters for re-election again. Unfortunately for Democrats, they'll endure the burden of running for office with the anchor of an unpopular Presidency around their neck, assuming Obama's ratings hold at current levels or get worse.
In fact, recent history would suggest that 2014 Senate and House contenders should fear the President's popularity the most. In 2010, Obama sported an abysmal 44/55% job approval rating, and Republicans won in a landslide. Something similar happened in 2006, when George W. Bush had a 43/57% approval rating, and the Democrats won in a landslide. In 2002, a hugely popular post-9/11 George Bush was able to flout tradition when his party won an impressive popular vote victory and picked up several seats.
But what if we look further down the road? Can the way voters feel about President Obama on election night 2016 affect the vote count for Hillary Clinton? Or Joe Biden? Or Howard Dean? Or any number of possible 2016 Democratic nominees? Intuition and common-sense suggests yes, and at least one poll-analyst seems to agree. But historical evidence provides room for doubt.
The series of tables below detail outgoing Presidential job approval ratings in the final month(s) of the presidential campaigns to replace them. And as you can see, especially with regards to the 2008, 2000, and 1960 presidential elections, the term-limited President's ratings didn't appear to make or break his party's nominee:
If presidential election results truly tracked closely to an outgoing president's job approval, would anyone have expected the McCain-Palin ticket to reach 46% of the popular vote, 21 points higher than Republican President George W. Bush's average 25% approval rating in the two weeks before the election? Imagine how different 2008 would have looked had Democrats been able to lure all 69% (!) of voters who disapproved of the job W. was doing to Obama's side.
There was a similar occurrence in the 2000 election, though this time, it was the outgoing popular President who was unable to help his standard bearer cross the finish line. Bill Clinton's average job approval rating in the final month of the 2000 campaign was 12 points higher than Gore's popular vote percentage (48%). And while Gore managed a half point popular vote win over George Bush, that failed in comparison to Clinton's net +22 approval rating.
The 2000 story closely mirrors 1960, where a popular Dwight Eisenhower saw his two-term Vice President narrowly lose the national popular vote, despite averaging a 60/28% job approval rating in the final 2 months of the campaign. For Kennedy to have received the 50% of the popular vote he ultimately did, he must have won over a fair number of pro-Eisenhower voters, as well as nailing down practically every one of the 28% who disapproved of Eisenhower.
The table below summarizes outgoing presidential job approval as compared to Presidential results since modern-polling began:
Keep in mind there are 3 occurrences in which outgoing Presidential job approval closely matched the party's presidential results. The most stark was in 1988, when 2-term VP George H.W. Bush's popular vote percentage matched Ronald Reagan's previous 2 month job approval average exactly, at 53%. Then in 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey's 43% of the popular vote was pretty close to outgoing LBJ's poor 39% average job approval rating in the 3 months before the election. And surely, Democrat Harry Truman's average 33/55% job approval rating in the final month of the 1952 presidential campaign must have had something to do with Republican Eisenhower capturing 55% of the popular vote that year, while Democratic nominee Stevenson stalled at 44%.
Of course, it's impossible to know with certainty the extent to which any president's job approval rating affects his party's presidential nominee. Maybe Al Gore would have done much worse than he did had it not been for Clinton's high approval marks. And maybe John McCain would have soared to victory had it not been for George W. Bush's historically low numbers.
Or perhaps presidential job approval only matters to the extent the incumbent party is willing to involve the outgoing president in the presidential contest. Reagan, for example, enthusiastically campaigned with Bush in 1988, whereas Gore famously sidelined Clinton.
But the relationship between presidential job approval and an incumbent party's performance at the presidential ballot box, at least in the context of an outgoing president, seems tenuous in the grand scheme.
That's not to say that Hillaryland wouldn't certainly prefer an Obama Administration with a 70% approval rating come November 2016, as opposed to the one George W. Bush had in November 2008. It is to say that history suggests Hillary could lose anyway in the former scenario, and wouldn't be mortally wounded in the latter.