As we approach Election Day 2010, a new Pew Research Center/National Journal poll finds that Republican gains in 2010 will have little bearing on the fate of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. The poll found that voters are more enthusiastic about reelecting Obama than they were at the same point in Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s presidencies.
The Pew Research Center/National Journal poll posed the question would you like to see Barack Obama run for reelection? 47% of respondents answered yes, and 42% said no. These numbers are actually better than those faced by Ronald Reagan when the country was still in the midst of a recession in 1982. In August of that year only 36% of Americans wanted to Reagan to run again, but two years later Ronald Reagan won reelection in a landslide.
The case of Bill Clinton even more closely resembles Obama’s situation. In 1994, only 44% of Americans wanted Bill Clinton to run for a second term, yet two years later Clinton cruised to reelection by carrying 31 states and beating Bob Dole by almost 8 million votes. In contrast there are two recent presidents who halfway through their first terms looked like shoo-ins for reelection. In November 1990, while basking in the end of the Cold War, 53% of Americans wanted George H.W. Bush reelection, and in October 1978 50% of Americans wanted Jimmy Carter reelected. Both presidents lost their bids for second terms.
Obama does face the challenge of running for reelection in much more polarized and partisan nation than either Clinton or Reagan’s America. There is a huge 71 point gap between Republicans and Democrats on whether or not Obama should run again. 83% of Democrats want him to run again, and only 12% of Republicans do. Reagan faced a 46 point deficit as 65% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats wanted him to run again. Bill Clinton only had a 34 point gap as 61% of Democrats and 27% of Republicans wanted him to run again.
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that using something like a midterm election result or a poll two years out to predict a president’s future prospects is a foolish pursuit. Voters are responding to the conditions of today when they participate in a poll or vote. In order to project this into the future it has to be assumed that conditions will remain exactly the same, when they never do. In Clinton and Reagan’s cases the economy improved and they each easily won reelection. For George H.W. Bush the economy plunged and he was voted out office. Jimmy Carter was undone by the unforeseeable in 1978 Iran hostage crisis.
Of course, none of this factual history will deter the media from speculating and projecting the results of 2010 onto 2012. The reality is that 2010 is about 2010 and 2012 will be about 2012. Next Tuesday night you will probably hear about what this election means for Barack Obama’s political future, but if history is any indication, there is very little that happens to a president two years out that will matter at the polls come reelection time. If the past is any indication of what he can expect in the future, 2012 should be a pretty good year for Barack Obama.