March 21, 2016
We’ve spent most of the past several weeks thinking about a possible to very likely Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump matchup in November. Can Hillary win with her considerable negatives? Can The Donald win with his even more considerable negatives?
Either would likely find themselves the least popular newly elected president in American history. Lost in this discussion is the role of the current incumbent. While the candidates certainly matter, and 2016 is already full of exceptions, the exiting president normally impacts the result too.
Especially with Hillary tying herself as close as possible to President Obama, there’s little reason to expect public opinion towards the incumbent to suddenly have little to no bearing on the outcome.
A popular president is no guarantee. Dwight Eisenhower was held in great esteem by the public and likely would have won a third term. Richard Nixon still (very narrowly) lost. But it helps. Nixon started in much better position than John McCain did in 2008.
Obama is not likely to find himself as popular as Ronald Reagan was when he helped pull George H.W. Bush across the finish line in 1988, but he is making progress. For the first time in almost three years, the Real Clear Politics average has him slightly more popular than not.
The current president operates in a narrower range than any of his predecessors. While he’s about as popular as Reagan was in March 1988, we have seven years of evidence his ceiling is much lower.
Reagan approached 60% by Election Day, while Obama hasn’t reached that level since the earliest days of his first term. We shouldn’t expect the president to sweep Hillary in by himself.
But there’s a big difference between a mild help and a mild hinderance. If Clinton and Trump are in fact the final two, a considerable percentage of Americans will dislike both candidates. If the election is decided by the voters who prefer neither candidate, their opinion on the incumbent will inform their decision.
Obama is increasingly moving from hinderance to help. Part of it is the impact of a competitive and noisy primary season. Nothing makes an incumbent look more presidential than those jockeying to succeed him.
But he’s also having a good year so far. After Paris and San Bernardino, another wave of terror was in the offing. While there are absolutely no guarantees going forward, the past couple months were quiet.
He’s in Cuba today. More Americans than not feel good about this. In general, presidents benefit from broadening relations. Nixon got a big election year bounce from going to China in 1972, and Reagan’s trip to Moscow in 1988 was a big part of his strong finish.
Back in 1960, the breakdown of Eisenhower’s scheduled summit with Nikita Khrushchev had a reverse effect. Though there are plenty of voters who would prefer no president visit Cuba until the Castros are gone, overall it’s a positive.
The Supreme Court battle is helping the president too. While a significant minority of Americans are opposed to voting on a nominee in the final year of a second term, CNN/ORC found 58% feel otherwise.
That was before the nominee was chosen. Depending on who you ask, Merrick Garland is either relatively moderate or not, but he’s a strong choice. At age 63, he’s not someone likely to spend 30 or 40 years on the court.
He’s well respected, and went through a contentious confirmation process almost two decades ago. In his introductory press conference, Garland teared up when talking about his wife and the opportunity to wind up on the court.
If Republicans want to continue to block him, they’ll need a strong argument and a unified front. They have neither. George Will is an example of a well known, long-time conservative pundit who is not on board. Plenty of conservatives don’t care what he thinks these days.
All well and good, but he’s a known conservative, someone Democrats can reference when trying to cast Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders as extreme or out of touch. We have clips of major players on both sides saying exactly the opposite of their current pitch when conditions were different in the past.
When in doubt, when there’s confusion, it’s easier to stand on the side of giving someone a hearing. Either the GOP continues to prevent Garland’s nomination to move to the Senate floor, or vulnerable senators up for re-election need to place an uncomfortable vote.
Cuba isn’t guaranteed to work out for Obama. Reagan reached out to students and met with dissidents. That may not happen this week. The visit is a huge opportunity and a big risk.
If the economy is in recession by fall, forget almost everything I’ve mentioned above. At that point, the president would serve as an anchor for Hillary, not ballast.
In the meanwhile, since we last looked at this at the beginning of the year, Obama has only made strides towards winning a virtual third term. We already know he’s a tough election year campaigner. In September and October, we’ll see him on the trail.
If conditions are similar in the fall, he’s an asset.