With Democrats woozy from their shellacking in November’s congressional elections, political junkies are riveted on 2012 and whether President Barack Obama will win a second term.
No one is putting a better spin on Obama’s fortunes than Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He wrote an end-of-the year column for Politico, a Washington news organization, saying Obama’s "list of achievements already dwarfs that of many presidents."
Kaine, a former Virginia governor, encountered skepticism during a TV interview last Sunday. Ed Henry, CNN’s senior White House corespondent, noted Obama’s approval rating from voters dropped 6 percentage points in 2010.
"You made your case but it seems like the American people aren’t buying it, sir," Henry said.
Kaine replied, "Relatively, if you look at the president’s mid-term numbers compared to other presidents in their mid-term, he’s fine."
We decided to take a closer look. Kaine was responding to a Gallup poll conducted in the final week of December that showed 47 percent of adult Americans approved of Obama’s job performance, 45 percent disapproved and 8 percent were undecided.
First, we asked for clarification of what Kaine meant when he said Obama is "fine."
Alec Gerlach, a DNC press secretary, said Kaine meant Obama’s mid-term poll numbers "are in the neighborhood of other presidents who got re-elected, including Reagan and Clinton." So for this fact-check we will focus on whether Obama's ratings are indeed similar to presidents who got re-elected.
Then we researched polls by Gallup because it has the longest record of tracking presidential popularity, dating to 1937 when Franklin Roosevelt was beginning his second term. We compared Obama’s numbers to the approval ratings other presidents received at the start of the year after mid-term congressional elections.
To keep the comparison consistent, we turned to the first Gallup poll on Obama completely conducted in 2011. A survey from Jan. 2 to Jan. 4 found the president had 49 percent approval, 45 percent disapproval and 6 percent were undecided on his job perfromance.
The average mid-term mark for presidents -- from Roosevelt in 1939 through Obama in 2011 -- is 53.5 percent approval, 36 percent disapproval and 10.5 percent undecided. Obama seems to be in the neighborhood, but not on the best street.
Let’s look at the presidents who got reelected in that time span. Their average mid-term approval was 57 percent and disapproval was 35 percent. Obama is not in that school district. But neither were Ronald Reagan nor Bill Clinton midway through their first terms. Then they moved up quickly.
Reagan was the least popular mid-term president. At the start of 1983, with the nation emerging from recession, he had 37 percent approval and 54 percent disapproval. Less than two years later, Reagan carried all but one state in a landslide reelection.
Bill Clinton’s numbers at the start of 1995 were similar to Obama’s today. Clinton had 47 percent approval, 45 percent disapproval. In 1996, he was easily reelected.
In contrast, George H.W. Bush had a robust 59 percent approval rating in early 1991 only to lose reelection the next year.
All told, we were able to find the last 19 mid-term presidential polls by Gallup. Obama’s approval rating is the 11th highest. Of the eight presidents below him, four times their party retained the White House in the next election, and four times it didn’t.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, says mid-term polls are a horrible gauge of coming elections because a president’s popularity can soar or plummet with events.
"They don’t say a thing," he said. "The numbers that matter are the votes of people and, considering the beating Democrats took on Nov. 7, the president is by no means OK, assured of a successful term or a second one."
Kaine, with his spokesman’s elaboration, said Obama’s mid-term polling popularity is "fine" compared to other presidents who went on to re-election.
Kaine is correct in saying that Obama’s numbers compare favorably to Reagan and Clinton. But the president’s mid-term approval rating -- gauged by the first poll completely conducted in the new mid-term year -- is 8 percentage points below the average of re-elected presidents since 1939. His disapproval rating is 10 percentage points above the average.
We know those numbers can change in an instant. But when a politician is down by 8 or 10 percentage points, we say he’s behind but within striking distance.
We rate Kaine’s statement Half True.
Tim Kaine interview, CNN’s State of the Union, Jan. 2, 2011.
Politico, The president’s progress, Dec. 31, 2010.
Interview with Alec Gerlach, regional press secretary for Democratic National Committee, Jan. 5, 2011.
Roper Center, presidential approval ratings.
Gallup, presidential approval rating for Jan. 2-4, 2011.
Interview with Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist, Jan. 4, 2011.
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