Brian Arbour: Copy Obama and Bush – IF Trump follows their example he can be reelected

Barack Obama did it in 2012. So did George W. Bush in 2004.

Both presidents improved their approval ratings during the course of their reelection campaigns  In fact, the boost in approval that Bush and Obama received provided the cushion they needed to win a close reelection battle.

Can Donald Trump do the same? Can he improve his approval rating between now and Election Day and defeat Joe Biden?

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An examination of Obama and Bush’s poll numbers indicates the answer could well be yes. If the last two presidents who ran for reelection were able to improve their standing with voters during the campaign, then Trump can too.

Yet, the conditions that allowed Trump’s two predecessors to improve their standing with voters may not hold this year. As a result, the president may not be able to improve his standing enough to win this November.

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The Real Clear Politics average shows that Obama spent most of 2012 with nearly equal shares of voters who approved of the job that he was doing as president and those who disapproved. But starting on Sept. 8, Obama’s approval rating outpaced his disapproval rating. And it stayed that way, with Obama over 49 percent approval for nearly every day of the rest of the campaign.

In 2004, approval ratings for George W. Bush declined throughout the first half of the year and then plateaued in the summer. But on Aug. 14, Bush’s approval rating moved ahead of his disapproval rating, where it stayed for the rest of the campaign. Like Obama, Bush’s approval rating stayed above 49 percent for nearly every day of the rest of the campaign, and Bush had a higher peak (52.9 percent in early September).

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Approval ratings for Obama and Bush rose as the campaign intensified in the late summer and the fall. Both were able to use their party’s national conventions and its subsequent media spotlight to highlight their achievements in the first term and to emphasize key themes that contrasted themselves with their opponents.

The improvements that Bush and Obama made in their approval ratings show that general election campaigns can matter, even for incumbents. Campaigns allow candidates and their parties to present information to voters that frames a candidate’s positions or actions in favorable terms, It allows them to summarize their achievements in ways that day-to-day news coverage necessarily glosses over.

In particular, campaigns matter to voters who do not pay a lot of attention to politics. The majority of voters either pay attention to politics on a regular basis or have strong attachments to their favored party. For these voters, the choice of who to vote for every four years is not difficult.

Another set of voters pay close attention only when political coverage is most intense, and often lack the partisan or ideological attachments to vote consistently for one party. While these voters are relatively small in number, their impact in 2004 and 2012 proved large.

What lessons does the late rise in approval ratings for the most recent presidents provide for the current one?   

What lessons does the late rise in approval ratings for the most recent presidents provide for the current one?

The good news is that history can repeat itself. If Bush and Obama could successfully emphasize the accomplishments of their administration and highlight themes that successfully contrasted themselves with their challengers, then one can presume that Trump can do the same. Both Bush and Obama suffered declines in their approval ratings over the first half of the year of their reelection campaigns, much like Trump. Both not only arrested their slides, but turned them around.

The bad news for Trump is that there are two key differences between those two elections and this one. For one, both Obama and Bush were dealing with objectively ambiguous empirical situations on the main concern of their presidency.

In 2004, the war in Iraq was seen neither as a roaring success or a hopeless failure. In 2012, the economy had recovered since the financial crisis, but was not strong enough that Obama could claim it was “morning in America.” Both were successfully able to argue that voters should “stay the course” and that their opponents would worsen their efforts.

In 2020, the economy and public health systems are not in an ambiguous state. With over 120,000 deaths from COVID-19 and double-digit unemployment, the fundamentals of American life right now are bad. Trump needs clear improvement in both public health and the economy to be able to argue that he is a better choice than his opponent.

The second key difference is that politics in 2020 are more intense than in 2012 or 2004, reducing the number of voters who would be persuaded by the campaign.

Obviously, both the 2004 and 2012 elections were very intense. But data show that feelings in 2020 are even stronger. Our June Fox News poll showed that 54 percent of respondents were extremely interested in this year’s presidential election, and only 19 percent were somewhat interested. In June 2012, only 38 percent of respondents said they were extremely interested in that year’s election. In 2004, data from the American National Election Study found that 40 percent of respondents were very interested in that year’s election (extremely was not an option).

More voters paying attention means that more voters have already made up their minds. And the more voters who have made up their minds, the fewer are available for Trump to win over during and after the convention.

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Bush did it. Obama did it. So there are significant reasons to think that Trump can raise his approval rating in the latter part of his campaign for reelection, providing the margin of victory needed to defeat Biden.

But there are significant differences in the political conditions of 2020 from those of 2004 and 2012, which indicate that Trump may not receive the approval bump that his predecessors did. And if that is the case, it is hard to see him winning this November.

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