Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Why Obama's Bump in the Polls Won't Help Democrats in 2016

Author: David Yee
Created: 01 July, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
5 min read

After a week of significant wins at the Supreme Court, President Obama's approval rating edged above the 50 percent mark for the first time in two years, according to a new CNN/ORC report.

This news has analysts buzzing with interpretations and projections for 2016.

Political analysts are about as accurate as fortune tellers at a carnival, gazing into a crystal ball to tell the future. The tools of the trade are a bit different -- polling, historical data, and trends -- but at the end of the day, it's always just a best guess.

But these best guesses often trend along certain axioms -- one of those axioms being that it is hard, but not at all impossible, for the incumbent party to win the White House after two terms of control.

A lesser known one is that in all presidential races since the two-term limitation came into effect (22nd Amendment), the incumbent party has never claimed the White House when the president's approval rating dropped below 60 percent at the end of his term.

Having that high of an approval rating at the end of two terms is so rare that President George H.W. Bush is the only president since the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment to be elected after a two-term president from the same party.

President Clinton (D) had the highest end-of-term popularity (66 percent), but while his vice president, Al Gore, was able to win the popular vote, he didn't win enough Electoral College votes to win the 2000 election.

Recipe for Victory: A Good Economy, Stable Foreign Policy, and High Incumbent Approval Ratings

Presidents Reagan and Clinton both left office with the economy in good shape.

Bush, confident in the economy, infamously promised "no new taxes," a pledge that would be his ultimate undoing. Clinton delivered on his "it's the economy, stupid" campaigning, so much so that a considerable amount of the wrangling during the 2000 debates was over what to do with the federal government's budget surplus -- a continued economic boom was just assumed by both candidates.

Reagan's administration made significant gains in Cold War diplomacy, with the Berlin Wall falling just one year after Reagan left office. Clinton used American troops in various "nation building" capacities, like in Somalia and former-Yugoslavia, as well as maintaining Bush's no-fly zones around Iraq. But no one saw significant threats on the world stage.

Americans at home and abroad were economically and geopolitically secure.

In the final years of his presidency, however, President Barack Obama is leaving Americans with a far different scenario.

The Middle East is crumbling both militarily and in popularity to the Islamic State, China is making significant threats in their own immediate sphere and worldwide, and Russia is attempting to regain some of its former glory through conquest and manipulative trade agreements.

The American economy has never fully recovered from the Great Recession. Millions are underemployed, a foreign trade gap continues to expand, and partisan politics keeps the draconian effects of sequestration a reality each time a budget deal needs approved.

If anything, the Democrats have been served with a recipe of disaster -- with the Republican Party eager to pick up the pieces. But will it really be that simple for either side?

A Vote for _____ is a Vote for 4 More Years of Obama

Arguably, President Obama cremated John McCain's 2008 campaign by suggesting that a McCain presidency would be like giving President George W. Bush 4 more years in office.


It was a simple strategy; the economy and foreign policy were both in shambles, and it paid off big with moderate, swing, and independent voters.

But what Obama sold to the voter was an ideal -- that of "hope," which is a lot more broad of a topic than a specific idea for success.

It's hard to deliver on an ideal, since "hope" can mean any number of different things to the voters -- and it makes it almost impossible to have concrete talking points for accomplishments when a campaign is running on such a broad topic.

Republicans seem to be cueing from this success, while ignoring the dangers of this style of campaigning. Many of the candidates are running on some form of a "restore" or "reclaim" type slogan, from economics to social issues.

Will the moderate, swing, and independent voters be as eager to jump on the bandwagon for an ideal this time?

A Long Fight to 2016

It's unlikely that 2016 will be won on an ideal -- but instead on the significant appeal of the candidate and their party's platform.

Obama cresting 50 percent popularity is hardly a victory for either side. You would expect the umbrage and indignation from the losers or the ebullient jauntiness of the winners to move the popularity needle more in one direction or another, but a 50/50 split means both parties have their work cut out for them.

Distancing yourself from the incumbent president has never been seen as a viable tactic for winning. But when the crown-jewel legislation of the president and the major party platform victory with gay marriage can't even get the party faithful energized, what's a Democratic candidate to do?

Likewise, when a large part of the Republican social agenda is struck down with gay marriage now legal in all 50 states, how should the candidates react when the "outrage" is overshadowed by the president's increased popularity?

In the long run, President Obama's final popularity will probably not mean a whole lot -- or even come close to breaking 60 percent.

This signals an uphill battle for the Democrats, even with a favorable election map projecting 7 or 8 toss-up states in the presidential race.

Simply put, the Democrats are going to have a hard time distancing themselves from the president without causing irreparable harm.

The Republican candidate will come out of the primary fairly battered, but with a honed message -- a trial by fire of sorts. This message will have President Obama and the Democratic candidate directly in their crosshairs.

But to capture those 7 or 8 critical states, both parties will have to have a candidate that has broad-based appeal with moderate, swing, and independent voters, something that the closed party primary system has never been good at producing.

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