Presidents, Popularity, and the Midterm Elections

James Joyner has written a post on the occasion of President Obama’s reaching the lowest approval rating of his presidency in the most recent polls:

A majority of Americans now disapprove of President Obama’s performance and a whopping 70 percent think the country is moving in the wrong direction.

For a longer term view of the president’s approval see here. What follows is a longish comment I left on that post.

More important than the single lowest point is that the president’s approval numbers have been going in the wrong way since the end of last year. That’s the longest such period since the post-honeymoon decline at the beginning of his presidency.

Among post-war presidents his approval rating is only better than Johnson’s, Nixon’s and Geoge W. Bush’s at this point in his presidency. That’s not an enviable company. It’s .6% better than George W. Bush’s and .5% worse than Harry Truman’s. He’s not in impeachment territory but he’s not in “advancing his agenda” territory, either.

The parties of presidents with that low an approval rating in the 19th quarter of their presidencies do not tend to do well in the midterm elections of the next year. In every single case in the post-war period (including Truman) with the president’s approval that low the president’s party has lost seats both in the House and the Senate.

House districts are now more, shall we say, sorted than they were in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s so I wouldn’t expect big turnovers there. The much larger question is what is the president’s approval rating in states that have Senate elections in 2014? That’s where the real potential for trouble for the Democrats will be.

Barack Obama has triumphed over the odds before so it would be foolish to count him out now. Anyone who believes that the Democrats will take the House and hold the Senate is banking on his bucking the odds again. IMO it’s much more likely that the Republicans will increase their control of the House slightly and take the Senate with a very narrow majority.

26 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I think it would be hard to prove or disprove that Obama will have problems “advancing his agenda.” He didn’t have much of an agenda to begin with. He only mentioned global warming once in his re-election campaign, the day before Election Day. He refused to discuss gun control, much to the horror of the Kos Kids. There really only three things that could be called his second term agenda: (1) immigration reform; (2) protecting Obamacare; and (3) judicial appointments. These opportunities are slipping away and its not really clear that they are that important. I think the Administration would like to take advantage of opportunities that open up for them, rather than negotiate with House Republicans.

  • I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of the present agenda, PD. Will a Republican Congress make those three things more or less likely to accomplish?

  • sam Link

    I suspect some, maybe a lot, of the decline at the moment can be attributed to the website cockup. Also, and more importantly, one ought never to underestimate the ability of the GOP (as presently constituted in the House) to blow its foot off. Ample opportunities are in the offing.

  • PD Shaw Link

    My current prediction is the Senate ends up a tie, with Louisiana staying in the (D) column. Mary Landrieu is from an established political family, is to the right of some Republicans, and took strong public stands against Obama on the BP oil spill, and wouldn’t be above attacking the President to gain re-election. Also, the jungle primary system Louisiana has gives her an opportunity to run against a second tier candidate in the runoff. She did vote for Obamacare, so her fate might be tied to perceptions about it next year.

  • jan Link

    Obama is one of the best political campaigners — ever! Couple that with him being one of the worst presidents, IMO — ever — and you have two opposing factors butting heads during the next three years. The president, though, started his midterm follies almost immediately after winning reelection. It’s like eating your dessert before dinner kind of trait — putting what you like to do first (public rallies), before what you find is a drag to do (being an administrator, leader, decision-maker). So, I think ‘winning’ against the odds will be his time-consuming hobby, between now and November ’14, with some reluctant camera moments spent telling people Obamacare is law, stop complaining and get with the program!

    As for the outcome of the midterms — it all depends how the next year is played out. By that I mean, if the republicans divine a strategy that is wholesome and appealing to the public, and stop ricocheting around in their differences, they will be able to make some significant inroads in Congress. After all, the openings in the Senate are more favorable to them, than to the dems, and the House redistricting gives them a safer edge there as well. However, they have botched opportunities before, making them easily capable of repeating their history of unlearned lessons.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @sam, Obama’s numbers have been drifting steadily down since re-election and I’m not sure that is unusual. He got re-elected with lower approval rating than most though. One of Dave’s links states that historically Presidential approval ratings drop during the next quarter (except for Reagan and Clinton), so I would expect this to be true here. A very successful launch of the exchanges and a more satisfactory resolution of the government shutdown might have allowed Obama to buck the trend.

  • ... Link

    Among post-war presidents his approval rating is only better than Johnson’s, Nixon’s and Geoge W. Bush’s at this point in his presidency.

    At least it’s better than Ford’s, Carter’s and GHW Bush’s.

  • ... Link

    And really, if you’re a President in his first term, it’s Ford, Carter and GHW Bush that you really want to beat.

  • sam Link
  • jan Link


    Any adverse shut-down residuals will be shutdown by the gradual roll out of deception surrounding the PPACA — especially what was added to it after it’s passage, and how these new regulations overwhelmingly effect people’s HC choices.

  • Red Barchetta Link


    Its evah!! Let’s get real, this is the first Oprah presidency. Who next? Dr. Oz?? That’s the state of political analysis and awareness in the electorate today. Maybe those insurance premiums will wake people up from those Matrix slumbers. I love the CA girl quote: “I was all for ObamaCare until I realized I was paying for it.”

    Truer words were never spoken.

    I really think the country has gone soft and hooked on government crack, just as the left desires.

    Replace Momma with government…….

    Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you.
    Mama wont let anyone dirty get through.
    Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in.
    Mama will always find out where you’ve been.
    Mama’s gonna keep baby healthy and clean.

    Ooooohhh, baby, Ooooohhh baby……..

    I wonder if Roger Waters knew where this would all end up when he penned those lyrics, just bricks in the wall.

  • jan Link

    Love your humor, Drew!

    You’re so right about the hook-up of people onto government care. They were so smart to first offer the freebies everyone could get behind — staying on parent’s insurance policies, along with the carte blanche acceptance of all medical conditions. Now, we’re heading towards the payment booth, and it all changes. I earlier called this whole process a ‘heroin drip,’ getting people addicted so they can’t do without it. And, that’s exactly the way it was planned, which is why the R’s were frantically trying to unhook the intravenous feeding before it became too late.

  • steve Link

    I think we are in unknown territory. While Obama’s ratings are low, the opposition’s is even lower. That is unusual I believe.


  • Steve, I think it looks a bit different when you look at it state-by-state, taking special consideration of the states that have Senate seats up currently held by Democrats. Limit the consideration farther to the states in that group that were carried by Romney in 2012. For example, the president’s approval rating in North Carolina, one of those states, is 38%. That’s roughly the same as Republicans’ there. The shutdown hurt Republicans there and the Senate race now “leans Democratic”. What will things look like a year from now? Democrats have got to hope that the president’s approval doesn’t decline and that Republicans’ approval does.

    The president’s approval rating can be 100% in a state that doesn’t have a Senate race in 2014. It won’t matter

  • PD Shaw Link

    My prediction is that Obama’s approval rating drops at least another 3% next quarter and will be in the upper 30s at the mid-term elections. In fact, I think his approval rating will largely resemble Bush II’s during the second term as they started at about the same point:

    (Good graph; but I think the “Election” line is misplaced)

  • jan Link

    Senate Democrats Supported Rule That Lead To Insurance Cancellations

    Senate Democrats voted unanimously three years ago to support the Obamacare rule that is largely responsible for some of the health insurance cancellation letters that are going out.

    In September 2010, Senate Republicans brought a resolution to the floor to block implementation of the grandfather rule, warning that it would result in canceled policies and violate President Barack Obama’s promise that people could keep their insurance if they liked it.

    Really? And, this 2010 vote has only taken center stage with CNN now — after insurance polices are being actually canceled?

    Maybe, just maybe, in retrospectively reviewing the glossed over “fine print” of the PPACA, extracting all the “obstuctionism” claims by the dems towards the GOP, this may be the reason why some media outlets are beginning to view the republicans as “wise” in their minority efforts to expose and slow down the effects of this law.

  • jan Link


    If this whole obamacare scenario continues to play out, with greater numbers of people either losing their HC insurance, or being put on notice by their employers that such an event is imminent, there will be an undeterminable outcry, leading to a greater fall-out, from people feeling stabbed in the back by the misinformation put out by this president and his democratic allies. Therefore, I can realistically see where Obama could fall below Bush in becoming an even greater despicable figure in American history.

    I continue to be surprised, though, by the day-to-day revelations of camouflage surrounding this bill — both in rhetoric and small print applications — before and during it’s enactment. Now such disingenuousness is being extended into it’s implementation, by rapid-fire finger pointing to others, distractions, denial of so many open-faced concerns/issues, and finally, politically delaying the big business mandate hitting the fan (before the ’14 midterms), in order to avoid the final crunch of employees being released to the exchanges, as many big businesses opt out of their HC plans.

  • I am genuinely surprised that the commentariat at OTB don’t recognize the relationship between getting removed from office and popularity. Any president can be impeached. I truly do not believe that it is possible to hold the office of president and not commit an impeachable offense (since an impeachable offense is whatever the House says it is).

    Not being removed is not merely a matter of your political party holding the Senate (although that’s critical). You’ve got to be popular, too. Bill Clinton’s approval rating rose from 1993 right through the end of his presidency. There’s no mystery there: we were prosperous. If his approval rating had been at 30% he’d’ve been removed from office.

  • jan Link

    Adding into the discussion of polling fallout is newsbusters excerpting from a Mother Jones piece regarding a new poll indicating democratic incumbents being in trouble.

    In Democratic districts, net incumbent approval has plummeted by 11 points, from +8 approval to +3 disapproval. In Republican districts, incumbent approval has gone down only 4 points. You see the same results when they ask a question about warmth of feeling toward incumbents: It’s down 7 points in Republican districts and 9 points in Democratic districts.

    This isn’t good news for Democrats. It’s true that attitudes toward the Republican Party have taken a bigger hit than attitudes toward the Democratic Party, but attitudes toward actual incumbents are exactly the opposite. And in elections, that’s what matters.

  • sam Link

    I’m sure that warms that little hard turd of resentment to forms the core of your political soul.

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