Brian Arbor: Copy Obama and Bush: If Trump Follows His Lead, He May Be Re-Elected


Barack Obama did it in 2012. The same 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 them with the cushion they needed to win a closed reelection battle.

Can Donald Trump do the same? Can you improve your approval rating between now and on Election Day and beat Joe Biden?


A review of the Obama and Bush poll numbers indicates that the answer may well be yes. If the last two presidents running for re-election were able to improve their position with voters during the campaign, then Trump can too.

However, the conditions that allowed Trump's two predecessors to improve their position with voters may not be valid this year. As a result, the President may not be able to improve his position enough to win this November.


The Real Clear Politics average shows that Obama spent most of 2012 with almost equal parts of voters who approved of the job he was doing as president and those who disapproved. But as of September 8, Obama's approval rating exceeded his disapproval rating. And it stayed that way, with Obama more than 49 percent approval for almost every day of the rest of the campaign.

In 2004, George W. Bush's approval ratings decreased during the first half of the year and then stabilized in the summer. But on August 14, Bush's approval rating was ahead of his disapproval rating, where it remained for the rest of the campaign. Like Obama, Bush's approval rating stayed above 49 percent on most days of the rest of the campaign, and Bush peaked higher (52.9 percent in early September).

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Obama and Bush approval ratings increased as the campaign intensified in late summer and fall. Both were able to use their party's national conventions and subsequent media attention to highlight their accomplishments in the first term and to emphasize key issues that contrasted with their opponents.

The improvements Bush and Obama made in their approval ratings show that general election campaigns can be important, even to incumbents. Campaigns allow candidates and their parties to present information to voters that frames a candidate's positions or actions on favorable terms. It enables them to summarize their achievements in such a way that day-to-day news coverage is necessarily overlooked.

In particular, campaigns are important to voters who don't pay much attention to politics. Most voters pay attention to politics on a regular basis or have strong ties to their favorite party. For these voters, choosing who to vote for every four years is not difficult.

Another group of voters pays close attention only when political coverage is most intense and often lacks partisan or ideological ties to consistently vote for a party. Although these voters are relatively small, their impact in 2004 and 2012 was great.

What lessons does the late increase in approval ratings of the most recent presidents offer for the current one?

What lessons does the late increase in approval ratings of the most recent presidents offer for the current one?

The good news is that history can repeat itself. If Bush and Obama were able to successfully emphasize the achievements of their administration and highlight issues that were successfully contrasted with their challengers, then it can be assumed that Trump can do the same. Both Bush and Obama suffered declines in their approval ratings during the first half of the year of their reelection campaigns, as did Trump. Both of them not only arrested their slides, but turned them over.

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

In 2004, the war in Iraq was not seen as a resounding success or a desperate failure. In 2012, the economy had recovered since the financial crisis, but it was not strong enough for Obama to say that it was "morning in the United States." Both were able to successfully 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 more than 120,000 COVID-19 deaths and double-digit unemployment, the fundamentals of American life right now are bad. Trump needs a clear improvement in both public health and the economy in order to argue that he is a better option than his opponent.

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

Obviously, the 2004 and 2012 elections were very intense. But the data shows 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 elections. In 2004, data from the American National Election Study found that 40 percent of respondents were highly interested in that year's election (extremely not an option).

More voters paying attention means that more voters have already made a decision. And the more voters have made a decision, the fewer will be available for Trump to win during and after the convention.


Bush did it. Obama did it. So there are important reasons to think that Trump may raise his approval rating in the latter part of his re-election campaign, providing the necessary margin of victory to defeat Biden.

But there are significant differences in the political conditions of 2020 compared to those of 2004 and 2012, indicating that Trump may not receive the approval blow that his predecessors received. And if that's the case, it's hard to see him win this November.



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