If the presidential race is a marathon and not a sprint, there’s a ray of sunlight for President Obama: His approval rating ticked up slightly in the period from April 20 to July 19 in Gallup’s daily tracking poll, to 46.8 percent. It’s a small data point, but it’s one that has tripped up previous one-term presidents — Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both saw their approval rating trend downward in the same period before they lost their re-election bids.
“The recent and continuing improvement in his approval rating … is a positive sign for his re-election prospects, but it remains below the 50 percent level that virtually assures a president of a second term in office,” Gallup wrote.
The closest comparison may be Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. Bush’s approval rating averaged 47.9 percent in the same quarter of Gallup’s tracking, even as he faced a Democratic challenger who was viewed more favorably by the voters, Sen. John Kerry, than the current GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.
Obama’s approval/disapproval ratio has been nearly even since the beginning of February 2012, after a very rough second half of 2011, when he battled with the Republican-controlled House over the debt ceiling.
But the key may be the trend. Gallup data also shows that Carter and H.W. Bush’s approval ratings were moving downward as their election years (1980 and 1992, respectively) wore on. Carter moved from a 35.8 percent average in the same quarter to 34.5 percent in the next. Bush slid even further, from 39.2 percent to 35.2 percent through the meat of the summer.
While President Obama may be in a better position than other endangered incumbents, Gallup also pointed out that his approval rating isn’t likely to shoot through the roof anytime soon.
“Based on historical record, it is unlikely that Obama’s approval rating will improve dramatically over the next three months,” pollsters wrote. “The biggest improvement any recent president had between the 14th and 15th quarter was slightly more than two percentage points for George W. Bush. In that case, the increase was enough to move Bush’s average to the 50 [percent] mark. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also gained in quarter 15 but were already above 50 [percent].”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.