Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running neck-and-neck in the polls, but Clinton’s chances look much stronger based another set of numbers: President Barack Obama’s approval ratings.
A president’s popularity, combined with strong U.S. economic data, historically have proven better predictors than horse-race polls this far from the general election.
"Elections are a choice but a lot of that choice is about whether or not people want to stay the course," said Christopher Wlezien, a University of Texas political science professor who co-authored a book on how voters’ presidential preferences evolve over a campaign. "The referendum choice is going to be based a lot on what people think of the president and how the economy is doing."
That’s good news for Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state and has clung tightly to his record while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Although Clinton comfortably led Trump in hypothetical match-ups for most of the year, three recent national polls showed the two essentially in a dead heat if the election were held today.
But amid what has become a vicious 2016 campaign, the public is growing fonder of Obama. His approval ratings have been 50 percent or higher for 11 of the past 12 weeks, a level he hadn’t hit in more than three years. His current rating —51 percent for the week ended May 22 — is two points higher than Ronald Reagan’s was at this phase of his presidency, according to Gallup data.
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Going back to 1952, the incumbent party won the largest share of the popular vote in nine out of 10 elections in which the sitting president had an average job approval rating of at least 48 percent in the second quarter of the election year, according to data gathered by Wlezien. The exception was Richard Nixon’s narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 but lost the election after a ballot dispute in Florida. The incumbent party lost the White House in all six elections in which presidential job approval was lower.
Approval Numbers Up
Helping to boost Obama’s job approval numbers is the state of the economy, which the president will address Wednesday in a visit to Elkhart in northern Indiana. It was the first place he visited as president, and he’ll return to highlight the progress the country has made since he took office at the bottom of the worst recession since World War II. The area’s unemployment rate hit 20 percent that spring but is now 4.3 percent on a resurgence of the area’s manufacturing industry, best known for making recreational vehicles and musical instruments.
The national economy shows signs of strengthening further despite continued discontent over slow wage growth. The U.S. jobless rate this year has remained a historically low 5 percent -- at or near full employment. Jobless rates have been this low heading into only three of the previous 14 presidential elections going back to 1960. Retail sales last month surged the most in a year, indicating consumers are confident enough to rev up spending. And purchases of new homes shot up 16.6 percent in April, the strongest pace since January 2008.
The Economy, Stupid
It’s not only a truism of American politics that the state of the economy usually sets the tone for presidential elections -- "It’s the economy, stupid," was the blunt internal slogan of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Studies by political scientists have repeatedly shown a strong correlation between election outcomes and the economy’s performance. When pollsters ask Americans the most important issue facing the country, the economy routinely leads the list, as it does this year.
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If Obama can hit 52 percent job approval over the summer and the economy grows at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter, a forecasting model developed by Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist professor at Emory University in Atlanta, gives Democrats even-money odds of overcoming voters’ traditional resistance to allowing a political party to control the White House for three consecutive terms.
The surge in Obama’s job approval is “by far” more important in forecasting the election outcome than the current poll standings of likely nominees, he said. Abramowitz said an added advantage for Democrats this year is that he believes Trump will underperform compared to a more traditional Republican candidate.
The surge in Obama’s popularity is "critically important" to the election campaign "particularly when you’re talking about an official in the Obama administration being the nominee," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Still, he said, the potential political boost to Clinton’s candidacy "may be undercut" by "overwhelming" public dissatisfaction with the overall state of the country. Sixty-percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, according to a May 13-17 CBS News/New York Times poll.
While the president remains officially neutral in the Democratic race, he and his advisers have already laid plans to to make full use of his political capital once the nomination is settled. His rising popularity makes him a more effective campaigner.
Obama has been offering a taste of what’s to come: talking up the economy and taking jabs at Trump, as he did in a commencement speech he gave at Rutgers May 15. Without ever naming the Republican candidate, Obama gave a point by point rebuttal to Trump’s positions on trade, the economy and immigration and told the graduates that “ignorance is not a virtue.”
"You got a little preview of what he’ll be doing out there: reminding people of what the presidency requires," said David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser.
No single set of data can predict the outcome of a presidential election. In fact, the only two presidents since World War II more popular at this phase of their presidencies than Obama both saw the White House go to the opposing party.
Dwight Eisenhower, with a 64 percent Gallup job approval rating in May 1960, presided over an economy that fell into recession that spring. Eisenhower also did little to help the campaign of his vice president, Richard Nixon, famously being unable to answer when a reporter asked for one Nixon achievement during his administration. Nixon narrowly lost the election.
Bill Clinton had a 57 percent approval rating in May 2000. But the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, distanced himself from the incumbent, who was dogged by the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. Gore ended up winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college to Republican George W. Bush over a ballot dispute in Florida.
Obama’s rising popularity hasn’t immediately transferred to Clinton, whose favorability rating has declined from 42.3 percent on Jan. 1 to 37.2 percent on May 22 as the Democratic nomination race has dragged on and she’s been under fire from both Sanders and Republicans, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Trump fares even more poorly, at 35.2 percent average favorability.
"Her numbers will drift back up and the president’s popularity will help it happen faster and I think make it more enduring," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and an adviser for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Obama’s rising public standing particularly boosts the impact of an emerging White House strategy for the election: using the presidential platform to help frame the choice voters face in a way that raises doubts among persuadable moderates about Trump’s temperament and qualifications for the office. Among political independents, Obama’s job approval rating soared to 50 percent from 42 percent the week ended Jan. 3.
His "astronomical" standing with Democrats also makes him especially qualified to rally the party around the eventual nominee and if Clinton prevails overcome some of the bad feeling among Sanders supporters, Axelrod said.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken May 16-19 showing Trump leading Clinton 46 percent to 44 percent illustrates the impact that opposition from Sanders supporters is having on Clinton in polling against Trump.
Among self-declared Sanders supporters, 20 percent said they would support Trump over Clinton in a general election match-up, up from 10 percent who said so in a March poll. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, Clinton barely led Trump, by 45 to 42 percent, compared with a 64 to 25 percent lead in March.
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