Optimists love the phrase, “The trend is our friend.” They use it so frequently — in politics, business, sports and many other areas — that a Google search shows nearly 100 million hits.
But the phrase comes with a big caveat: “unless it's not.” In other words, trends are dependable, unless they aren't.
If President Obama's poll numbers begin improving, the trend certainly could turn out to be his friend. That's because he started the 2012 election year with relatively weak job-approval ratings. On the other hand, if Obama's numbers drop, he could be facing an “unless it's not” scenario.
The Gallup polling organization reported Jan. 16 that Obama's average job-approval rating for the first half of January was just 44 percent — well below the 50 percent threshold that Gallup “considers determinant for re-election.”
Yet the analysis accompanying that report suggests Obama's chances of winning in November would improve significantly if his approval ratings show any significant uptick — even if they don't end up greatly exceeding 50 percent.
It also shows that one of the worst things that can happen to a president seeking re-election is to peak too soon. Some of Obama's recent predecessors who appeared more popular a year out from Election Day either lost or struggled to eke out a narrow victory.
The role model for an Obama election-year comeback is fellow Democrat Bill Clinton, whose approval average in early January 1996 was a dismal 42 percent. By October, though, Clinton's approval rating had bounded up to 58 percent, and he ended up winning re-election with relative ease.
On the other hand, Democrat Jimmy Carter — whose approval ratings had sunk to 28 percent in July 1979 because of economic problems, energy shortages and international challenges — appeared in much better shape as 1980 began, with a mid-January job-approval average of 56 percent. However, that proved to be an artificial “bounce” in the polls, mainly reflecting a “rally around the flag” response after Islamic radicals in Iran took 52 Americans hostage in November 1979. Carter's approval ratings dropped to near his all-time low, and he ended up losing badly to Republican Ronald Reagan.
Reagan himself appeared somewhat vulnerable entering his re-election campaign in 1984, with an average approval rating of 52 percent. But by October, that rating was up to 58 percent, and he ended up winning one of the biggest landslides in presidential history, thrashing Democrat Walter F. Mondale, Carter's vice president.
The data above show presidents since Richard M. Nixon ran for a second term in 1972 who gained ground in job-approval polling during their re-election campaigns and those who lost ground. All three presidents whose trend lines rose during their re-election bids won second terms. Two of the three presidents whose popularity was declining during the re-election campaign lost their contests, while the other won a narrow victory.
— Bob Benenson