Recently, there has been extensive media coverage of recent polling highlighting President Biden's relatively poor performance among potential voters. The political pundit community has been buzzing with concern about what this might mean for the President in the upcoming election, which is about a year away. Despite the latest Democrat success in the recent mid-term elections the press, even the so called “liberal press” like MSNBC, CNN and the like seem disposed to highlight equally the Democratic success and the Presidents failure in the polls. But does it really indicate his fate? Let's delve into the history of polling in presidential elections spanning the past 50 years.
The Dynamics of Polling and Incumbent Presidents' Second Term Elections
In U.S. presidential elections, polling can play a pivotal role in assessing public sentiment and predicting outcomes, particularly for incumbent presidents seeking re-election. I have examined some information regarding the performance over the past five decades of these presidents in an attempt to gage how reliable polling one year before predicts the election results. However, It needs to be acknowledged that the validity of modern political polling may be seriously flawed as described in an excellent post in Daily Kos by Mercy Ormont. (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2023/11/8/2188972/-WHY-Polling-is-Dead-Dead-Dead pm_campaign=front_page&pm_source=trending&pm_medium=web) Ormonts post shows the many ways pollsters can manipulate the results. Since polls may be manipulated in ways described in Ormont’s post all polls should be examined closely to determine if intentionally or unintentionally bias or misdirection has occurred.
Assuming the polls themselves have not been manipulated or ineptly conducted, then:
1. Polling One Year Prior to the Election: The Early Indicators
Polling conducted one year before a presidential election serves as an initial gauge of an incumbent president's standing with the electorate. Here's what I found:
Incumbent presidents often encounter approval rating challenges during their first term, typically averaging around 50%.
Early polling one year before the election tends to exhibit fluctuations influenced by factors like economic performance, foreign policy, and domestic matters.
In some instances, incumbent presidents might see their approval ratings dip initially due to controversial policy decisions or external events.
2. Polling Three Months from the Election: The Home Stretch
As the election draws nearer, polling conducted three months before the election becomes increasingly significant in assessing the incumbent president's chances of securing a second term. Here's what happens in this phase:
Incumbent presidents often ramp up their campaign efforts during this period, which can sway polling outcomes.
These polls may reflect the impact of presidential debates, party conventions, and campaign events.
Incumbent presidents may witness a boost in their approval ratings if their campaign resonates with key demographics or if the economy shows signs of improvement.
3. The Election Results: The Final Verdict
The ultimate test of an incumbent president's performance occurs on Election Day. This is when the electorate casts their votes, and the polling data is put to the final test. Here's what we've observed:
Election results often mirror the trends seen in polling conducted three months before the election.
Incumbent presidents who have effectively communicated their accomplishments and addressed voter concerns tend to fare better in the election.
In some cases, incumbent presidents may experience a turnaround in their fortunes, while others may see their polling trends persist into the election results.
Now, let's examine a few historical examples to illustrate these dynamics.
1: Ronald Reagan's Re-Election in 1984
Polling One Year Prior to the Election (1983):
At the start of 1983, Ronald Reagan's approval ratings were relatively modest, around 40%. The economy was recovering from a recession, and Reagan faced criticism for his handling of domestic issues, including unemployment and budget deficits. However, his approval ratings steadily improved throughout the year as the economy gained traction, and he implemented tax cuts that were popular with his conservative base.
Polling Three Months from the Election (July 1984):
By July 1984, three months before the election, Reagan's approval ratings had surged to around 55%. His leadership during the economic recovery and his optimistic messaging resonated with voters. Additionally, his strong performance in the presidential debates solidified his image as a competent and charismatic leader.
Election Results (November 1984):
In the 1984 election, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide, securing 58.8% of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes, carrying 49 out of 50 states. This remarkable electoral performance reflected the substantial improvement in his standing from earlier polling, underscoring the impact of his successful campaign strategies and economic achievements.
2: George H.W. Bush's Re-Election Bid in 1992
In contrast, the re-election bid of George H.W. Bush in 1992 serves as an example where an incumbent president's polling trends did not translate into electoral success.
Polling One Year Prior to the Election (1991):
At the beginning of 1991, George H.W. Bush's approval ratings were relatively high, largely due to his leadership during the Gulf War. His approval ratings reached as high as 89% in March 1991, showing strong public support for his handling of the conflict.
Polling Three Months from the Election (July 1992):
By July 1992, three months before the election, Bush's approval ratings had fallen to around 37%. The economy was in recession, and his opponent, Bill Clinton, successfully portrayed himself as a candidate who could address domestic issues and economic challenges. Bush's campaign struggled to pivot from his foreign policy successes to effectively addressing the economic concerns of voters.
Election Results (November 1992):
In the 1992 election, George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton. He secured only 37.4% of the popular vote and 168 electoral votes. Clinton's campaign, focused on "It's the economy, stupid," resonated with voters who were grappling with economic difficulties. Bush's failure to effectively address these concerns in the election reflected the disconnect between his earlier polling numbers and the election results, highlighting the impact of changing political landscapes.
3: Bill Clinton's Re-Election in 1996
Bill Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996 demonstrates an incumbent president successfully navigating polling trends to secure a second term.
Polling One Year Prior to the Election (1995):
In 1995, one year before the election, Bill Clinton's approval ratings were relatively stable, hovering around 50%. His presidency had been marked by a period of economic growth and relative stability.
Polling Three Months from the Election (July 1996):
By July 1996, three months before the election, Clinton's approval ratings had improved to approximately 54%. His campaign emphasized positive economic conditions and his ability to work across the aisle. Additionally, Clinton's personal charisma and effective communication contributed to his popularity among voters.
Election Results (November 1996):
In the 1996 election, Bill Clinton secured a decisive victory, winning 49.2% of the popular vote and 379 electoral votes. He successfully maintained and even improved upon his earlier polling numbers.
4: George W. Bush's Re-Election in 2004
George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 shows an incumbent president's performance varying from early polling to the final election results.
Polling One Year Prior to the Election (2003):
In 2003, one year before the election, George W. Bush's approval ratings experienced fluctuations, largely influenced by events such as the Iraq War. His approval ratings ranged from around 50% to 60%.
Polling Three Months from the Election (July 2004):
By July 2004, three months before the election, Bush's approval ratings remained in a similar range, approximately 49%. His campaign emphasized national security and his resolve in the face of terrorism.
Election Results (November 2004):
In the 2004 election, George W. Bush won re-election with only 50.7% of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes. His ability to maintain approval ratings within a relatively stable range from earlier polling allowed him to secure a second term.
5: Barack Obama's Re-Election in 2012
Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012 illustrates an incumbent president overcoming challenges to secure another term in office.
Polling One Year Prior to the Election (2011):
In 2011, one year before the election, Barack Obama's approval ratings fluctuated around 45%. The U.S. was grappling with economic challenges and high unemployment rates, which posed significant hurdles for the incumbent president.
Polling Three Months from the Election (July 2012):
By July 2012, three months before the election, Obama's approval ratings had improved to approximately 49%. His campaign focused on the economic recovery, healthcare reform, and mobilizing key demographics, including young and minority voters.
Election Results (November 2012):
In the 2012 election, Barack Obama secured re-election with 51.1% of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes. Despite the earlier challenges reflected in the polling data, Obama effectively communicated his vision for the future, which resonated with many voters. His campaign's ground game and voter outreach efforts played a crucial role in securing his second term.
6: Donald Trump's Re-Election Bid in 2020
Donald Trump's re-election campaign in 2020 provides a recent example of an incumbent president facing polling dynamics and election results.
Polling One Year Prior to the Election (2019):
In 2019, one year before the election, Donald Trump's approval ratings were polarized, often hovering around 40-45%. His presidency had been marked by controversies and a deeply divided electorate.
Polling Three Months from the Election (July 2020):
By July 2020, three months before the election, Trump's approval ratings remained polarized at approximately 42%. His campaign focused on issues such as the economy, immigration, and law and order, while the COVID-19 pandemic posed a significant challenge.
Election Results (November 2020):
In the 2020 election, Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, receiving 46.8% of the popular vote and 232 electoral votes.
Conclusion: The Ever-Changing Landscape of Incumbent Presidents
While early polling can provide insights into an incumbent's standing, the ability to navigate changing political landscapes, effectively address key issues, and connect with voters in the final stretch leading up to the election can ultimately determine whether an incumbent president's performance improves or stagnates from the initial polling data. These examples serve as reminders that the electoral process is a multifaceted journey, and the outcome is not solely determined by early polling but by a complex interplay of factors that unfold over the course of a presidential campaign.
I will leave it to the readers to draw from this whatever conclusions they wish from this post, however, for me, early polling a year before a presidential election signifies little about the election other than an indication of voters concerns at the time the poll was taken. World and national events and the incumbent presidents response to them during the three months or so prior to the election along with campaign strategy and get out the vote efforts means far more than poll results one year prior to the election. I believe Biden and his re-election team understands this also.