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What Does Polling Say About November?


President Truman, having secured reelection despite upside down polling, holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which called the race prematurely.

In a normal presidential election year, June headlines would be filled with speculation about who the White House challenger will pick as a running mate. Cable news would be strewn with video of rallies, and campaigns would be deep in preparation for summer conventions and fall debates.

This, of course, has not been a normal election year.

Republicans are looking for a new convention home as we speak, Democrats are seriously considering holding theirs virtually, and Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has been relegated to campaigning largely from a video studio hastily built in the basement of his Delaware home when it became clear that COVID-19 would prevent travel. 

Despite this “new normal” one thing has remained constant: pollsters are still examining Americans’ opinions about the nominees, the economy, and the general state of the country. And they’re comparing today’s numbers to past presidential election cycles.

What do those comparisons tell us about November’s outcome? Let’s take a look.

One of pollsters’ favorite indicators is the right track/wrong track metric. This question is simple: broadly speaking, does a voter believe the country is moving in the right direction or the wrong one? Before diving in, some context: Americans are a deeply pessimistic people. According to CBS News, right track numbers have been higher than wrong track only three times in the past four decades: during the 1980s, in the late 1990s, and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

This context – the notion that Americans rarely feel good about where the nation is headed – may be of some solace to the Trump administration, because voters are suggesting they are widely unhappy with the current trajectory of the country. 

The freshest right track/wrong track number comes from Morning Consult, which today released the results of a poll taken May 29 to June 1. Morning Consult found 31 percent of voters believe the United States is headed in the right direction, while 69 percent believe it is “pretty seriously” off track. Morning Consult noted, “The gap between the two figures, at 38 percentage points, is the widest measured in all of the 171 weekly polls conducted since” President Donald Trump took office.

Those numbers also are down significantly from just four months ago. In three Morning Consult surveys conducted in February and March, 43 percent of voters said the country was headed in the right direction.

President Trump actually might not need to be that worried about this metric, however. At this point in President Barack Obama’s presidency – and reelection effort – be was similarly situated: 58 percent of voters said the country was on the wrong track and 34 percent said it was headed in the right direction. Gallup polling shows a similar scenario. In a May 2020 poll it found 32 percent of voters were satisfied with the direction of the country and 66 percent were not. In May 2012—the same point in President Obama’s reelection cycle—only 24 percent were satisfied and 74 percent were dissatisfied. In May 2004—the same point in President George W. Bush’s election cycle—37 percent were satisfied and 62 were not.

Both presidents, of course, were reelected despite their low right track numbers.

Perhaps that’s why University of Oklahoma Associate Professor Andrea Benjamin told Morning Consult other factors “like job approval, partisanship, and voters’ economic standing are better predictors of electoral outcomes.”

So, what about those factors?

Regarding partisanship, the president only needs to worry about where Independents land. His base looks a lot like it did in 2016. The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey notes, “[V]oters have become far less likely to switch parties or abandon their party’s candidate: Trump has fewer on-the-fence voters to compete for, but also fewer to lose.” According to Gallup, in June 2016, 27 percent of the American electorate identified as Republican. Today that figure is 28 percent. The numbers were relatively the same on the Democratic side: 28 percent of Americans identified with that party in June 2016; 31 percent do today. Interestingly, the number of voters who self-identify as not affiliating with either party has decreased pretty significantly in the last four years: forty-five percent of Americans identified as Independents in June 2016 compared to 37 percent today.

Now let’s look at job approval. According to the election statistics website FiveThirtyEight, President Trump started off his year in a worse spot than any of his predecessors with the exception of former President Gerald Ford, who, of course, did not win reelection. (President Ford remains the only person to serve as President of the United States without ever winning election to the presidency or vice presidency.) President Trump’s average approval was at just 42.6 percent—a full 10 points below where President Bill Clinton was during his reelection year, 12 points below where President Ronald Reagan was in 1984, and almost 15 points below where President George W. Bush was in 2004. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, President Trump’s approval for early June is about 42 percent. Around 54 percent disapprove. (Four percent, incredibly, don’t seem to have an opinion.) Helpfully, the site also includes averages for every president going back to President Harry Truman. Forty-two percent of Americans approved of President Obama at this point in his presidency. Forty-seven percent disapproved.

He was reelected.

Forty percent approved of George H.W. Bush at this point in his first term. Forty-two percent disapproved.

He was not reelected.

While President George W. Bush started out 2004 strong, by June his approval was at only 43 percent. He, too, was reelected, but President Gerald Ford was not. His approval rating in June 1976? Forty-three percent.

So what about the economy?

Before COVID-19, way back in September 2019, Moody’s Analytics predicted an electoral victory for President Trump based on how consumers felt about their own financial situation and the trajectory of the stock market and economic growth. The Moody’s predictions have been wrong only once since 1980—in 2016, when President Trump beat Hillary Clinton.

CNBC framed the results of the Moody’s September report this way: “Barring anything unusual happening, the president’s Electoral College victory could easily surpass his 2016 win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, which came by a 304-227 count.”

Well, something unusual happened.

According to Gallup, 53 percent of Americans are worried COVID-19 will have a severe financial impact on their family. The stock market is slowly recovering but unemployment is rampant and no one knows what the economic recovery coming out of the pandemic will look like. Regardless, many economists expect second quarter GDP to be among the worst recorded.  

Moody’s has not revisited its predictions, but it has estimated that each additional percentage point of GDP growth translates into an additional percentage point of the vote share. If that holds true in the reverse, current growth rates spell real trouble for President Trump. As NPR’s Ron Elving reminded readers in early May only “few presidents have survived poor economic conditions.” They were William McKinley in 1900, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and Harry Truman in 1948.

Most failed reelection bids do come down to the economy, it seems. President George H.W. Bush was the last president who failed to secure a second term and the economy was coming out of recession during his reelection bid in 1992. Several other one-term presidents could similarly point to economic troubles. The Great Depression did in President Herbert Hoover. (Unemployment was above 20 percent at election time.) Republican Gerald Ford failed to win reelection in 1976, and Democrat Jimmy Carter followed suit four years later due to low economic growth and high inflation. (President Ford also was hindered by his pardon of disgraced President Richard Nixon.)

An exception to the economic rule: William Howard Taft, who served between 1909 and 1913. He failed to secure a second term when former president Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate. Roosevelt had supported Taft’s initial election and the split in the Republican party allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to prevail.

If the economy continues to decline, or has trouble recovering, can the country expect a Joe Biden victory in November?

Not so fast.

As NPR warned readers earlier this year,  we should take all election projections with a grain of salt. One reason is that incumbents are notoriously resilient. For example: President Harry Truman’s approval rating was at 36 percent in the spring of his reelection year, and he won. President Richard Nixon’s approval rating was at 50 percent in December 1971, but he got 60 percent of the popular vote a year later. 

Moreover, as NPR concluded and as we can all attest in a year that has been thus far been  tumultuous and challenging, “No one knows what else will happen in 2020 that will affect and perhaps determine the November outcome.”

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