The Thinker: Rich Galen


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By the Numbers

Rich Galen

Monday July 9, 2012


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  • We did this a couple of months ago, and I decided - as we are now within four months of election day, to take another look at the polling numbers of former Presidents in their first terms.

  • As of Sunday afternoon, President Obama's job approval, according to Gallup was 46%. His disapproval was also 46%. In the past half-century only George W. Bush has won re-election with an approval score of under 50 percent.

  • Let's go to the chart.

  • Here's the list of Presidential approval ratings at approximately the same point in their first terms going back to Lyndon Johnson:

    Name    Year   Overall   Ind.  Result
                   Approval  Appr

    Johnson 1964     74%     68%   Won
    Nixon   1972     52      61    Won
    Ford    1976     45      48    Lost
    Carter  1980     33      25    Lost
    Reagan  1984     55      56    Won
    HW Bush 1992     32      27    Lost
    Clinton 1996     57      57    Won
    GW Bush 2004     47      39    Won
    Obama   2010     46      41    ---

  • As you can see, being over 50 percent approval in July is a pretty good indicator of success four months down the road. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all cruised to victory in their re-election bids.
    -- Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater 486 electoral votes to 52

    -- Richard Nixon beat George McGovern 520 - 17

    -- Ronald Reagan similarly nearly ran the table on Walter Mondale 525 - 15

    -- Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole 379 - 159

  • However, of those who were under 50 percent approval at this point in their first terms - Ford, Carter, H.W., and G.W. Bush - only George W. survived defeating John Kerry 286 - 251

  • Remember the Mullings rule of polling:
    Treat political polls like we used treat scoring figure skating in the Winter Olympics. We knew the French and the East German judges would cheat so we threw those scores out and whatever was left over was probably an accurate representation of what the skaters had accomplished.

  • If you are looking at a series of polls, resist the impulse to toss out the poll(s) that show your candidate doing badly. Instead, ignore the best poll for your guy and the best poll for the other guy and whatever is left is probably an accurate representation of the state-of-play when those remaining polls were in the field.

  • At MSNBC yesterday, studio host Alex Witt asked me if Republicans were worried because Obama is still leading in the polls. I pointed out that nationally he was leading by about 2.7 percentage points - well within the margin of error.

  • It is the Obama campaign that is worried, because they can't get any separation from Mitt Romney. The employment figures released Friday were a shock to both the American political and American economic systems.

  • The polling we're looking at over the weekend does not take into full account unemployment remaining at 8.2 percent. We'll see if that becomes a heavier anchor on Obama's numbers.

  • If the global economies continue to down-shift over the next four months, it is quite likely that percentage will go higher.

  • If that is so, then Obama has no choice but to attempt to throw as much mud at Romney as he can. In essence, he will have to run a campaign that is nothing more than a four-month negative ad.

  • Will that work? Maybe, but not likely.

  • It would be cognitive dissidence for a huge sector of the electorate who might think Obama has been incompetent, but still think he's a decent guy. That kind of campaign would do nothing to change their minds about Obama's incompetence, but might well move supporters toward Romney, or convince them to stay home.

  • The best Obama will be able to do is to make the case that Romney is too far removed from average Americans to be trusted to do what's in their best economic interests.

  • Much as George W.'s campaign did to Sen. John Kerry when they made him look like an effete snob. Not a heavy lift, in that case, by the way.

  • If Obama decides to, as a former boss used to say, "turn mother's picture to the wall," it will indicate the campaign knows that Obama has lost the battle to keep this election from being a referendum on his first term.

  • Obama's approval numbers are not determinative, but they do indicate that the hill to re-election may be getting steeper by the day.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring today: Links to two historical sites; to the Gallup site showing Presidential approval and to a chart showing the results of every Presidential election since 1789. Also a Mullfoto from my visit to the NBC Washington bureau yesterday and an interesting Catchy Caption of the Day.

    -- END --

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