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Trump’s Re-Election Numbers Look Bad Two Years In, But So Did Other Presidents

Trump’s re-election numbers look worse than his predecessor’s, in more ways than one.

Trump's Re-Election Numbers Look Bad Two Years In, But So Did Other Presidents

Donald Trump and Bill Clinton share more in common than just the presidency. They also both looked like one-term presidents half way though their first terms. Photo courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.


The increasingly insatiable, largely media-driven appetite for electoral polling was obvious in a February 2017 national survey conducted by Morning Consult, on behalf of Politico. Question number six of nearly sixty asked voters whether they would support Donald Trump or the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. The following month, Public Policy Polling tested Trump in head-to-head match-ups against a number of likely 2020 Democratic contenders. Before the ink on his inaugural speech dried, pollsters were in the field, and asking voters their thoughts on hypothetical scenarios still four years out. And since then, the pace of such polling has increased. But how accurate are these various measures of presidential re-election odds this far out from the next presidential election? More importantly, how are these odds measured?

The various means to test a president’s re-election odds can be roughly broken down into three categories:

  1. The generic ballot test, which asks whether a poll respondent supports the president for re-election, or would prefer their Democratic opponent.
  2. The “does the president deserve re-election” question, or some variation of it (this measure differs from the generic ballot question in that it does not specifically ask voters if they would support the president’s Democratic opponent, just whether they will support the president’s re-election or not).
  3. The horse race test, which asks voters to choose specifically between President Trump and a named Democrat.

Now that we know what measures we’ll use to examine the likelihood of a president’s re-election, lets consider how accurate the measures were at similar points in past presidential election cycles. We’ll start with the generic ballot test.

The generic ballot question has been asked fifteen times by various pollsters since the start of the Trump presidency, and he has trailed his unnamed Democratic opponent in all of them, by as little 3 points (as found by Rasmussen) and by as much as 16 points (as found by NBC/Wall Street Journal). Overall, Trump trails a generic Democratic opponent by an average of 47-37%. That’s a larger deficit than any of his predecessors at a similar point in their first term dating back to George H.W. Bush. Compare Trump’s generic ballot performance with former President Obama. From January 2009 through January 2011, Obama tied his unnamed Republican opponent 44-44% across eleven surveys, leading by as many as three points, and trailing by as much as five. Consider the table below for further generic ballot comparison to past presidencies.

Though Trump is in worse shape by generic ballot standards than all of his predecessors dating back to George H.W. Bush, the generic ballot itself hasn’t been all that accurate in predicting presidential outcomes. In 1996, President Clinton won re-election by 9 points, though he trailed a generic Republican an average 40-36% through the first two years of his term. In 1992, President Bush lost his re-election battle by six points, though you hardly would have guessed it from the (very limited) generic ballot polling in his first two years in office. And while George W. Bush did win re-election, it was not by the impressive margin indicated from polling in his first two years in office. So while Trump’s deficit against a generic opponent is the largest since at least Bush 41, trailing at this point on the generic ballot does not preclude a 2020 win.

Just as unhelpful at predicting presidential outcomes, if not more so than the generic ballot, is the question of whether or not the president deserves re-election, or some variation of it. Pollsters began asking this question with regularity early in a president’s first term only recently. This measure of examining presidential re-election prospects was predictive of the outcome only once, for George W. Bush. Americans said W. deserved re-election by a 50-35% margin two years into his presidency. He ultimately won by two-and-a-half points. In contrast, Americans said Barack Obama did *not* deserve re-election 47-42% after the first two years of his presidency. However, he went on to win by a similar margin. A majority of voters also said Clinton did not deserve re-election in 1993-1994, though he went on to an electoral landslide. George H.W. Bush was also favored for re-election for his first two years in office, though ultimately lost. The ‘deserves re-election’ question has been asked 8 times since the start of the Trump Presidency, and an average of 37% of poll respondents say he deserves re-election; 58% say he does not. That is a worse net result for this question than for his four predecessors.

Trump's Re-Election Numbers Look Bad Two Years In, But So Did Other Presidents

Data courtesy of Wikipedia, PollReport.com, and Roper’s iPoll Database.

The most predictive of the various measurements for gauging Trump’s 2020 re-election odds is number three mentioned in paragraph two – the horse-race questions featuring an actual, named challenger from the opposing party. Unsurprising given the sheer number of Democrats considering a presidential run in 2020, Trump has already been polled against twenty-five potential challengers, more than any other president at this point in their presidency. He has a losing average against 72% of them. President Trump averages 39% against his combined 23 named Democratic challengers. The named Democratic opponent averages a combined 41%. This is the first time dating back to the Reagan Presidency that the incumbent president trailed, on average, his combined, named opponents in presidential polling during the first two years in office.

Compare these numbers to Trump’s immediate predecessor. Barack Obama averaged a 46-36% advantage over the twenty-one combined Republican opponents he was polled against in the first two years of his presidency, and he had a winning percentage against ALL of them (vs. Trump’s current 28% winning percentage). Not one of the twenty-one potential challengers Obama was polled against averaged a higher percentage than him. The same is true for both President Bushes. Bill Clinton’s horse-race polling through January 1995 most closely resembles Trump’s situation today, though still not quite as negative.

Trump's Re-Election Numbers Look Bad Two Years In, But So Did Other Presidents

Data courtesy of Wikipedia, PollReport.com, and Roper’s iPoll Database.

What does all of this data tell us about the 2020 presidential outcome? Not nearly as much as it tells us about where Trump stands in comparison to his predecessors. First of all, it’s important to keep in mind the incredibly small sample size we’re dealing with (just 4-5 presidential elections). The lack of data from a larger number of elections makes making predictions off the limited numbers we have precarious. But other than that, the data is a bit of a mixed bag for Trump. The good news for supporters is they have ample evidence to argue that negative re-elect and generic ballot numbers in the first two years in office do not preclude a president from winning re-election (see Barack Obama and Bill Clinton), while positive re-elect and generic ballot numbers do not necessarily translate into winning re-election (see George H.W. Bush).

On the other hand, while other presidents have faced deficits against a generic opponent, none have trailed by as much at this point in their presidency as Donald Trump, dating back to at least Bush 41. And while other presidents have faced a net negative “deserves re-election” at this point in their presidency, none were as negative as this president’s. Trump also has the distinction of being the first incumbent president dating back to at least Reagan to earn less than 40% on average against his named opponents, combined. He also has a losing average against more potential opponents than any president since at least Ronald Reagan.

In spite of all of this, Trump very well could still win re-election. But it is worth noting that early indications are he is starting off from a weaker position than his last five predecessors. Even more concerning is that presidents like Reagan, Clinton, and Obama could blame a poor economy on their initial poor re-elect numbers. What is Trump’s excuse?

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37 thoughts on “Trump’s Re-Election Numbers Look Bad Two Years In, But So Did Other Presidents

  1. The poll numbers just underline the general dynamic. Trump won (barely) via a trifecta of HRC’s unique personal baggage (and her campaign decisions), the cyclical liberal purity fetish and a number of black swan decisions by outside actors (chiefly Comey).
    Two of those three factors can be expected to be removed or inverted in 2020; HRC won’t be on the ballot and liberal purity politics can be expected to be mostly absent (or even inverted). As for outside actor intervention the odds seem to favor it being a factor against Trump rather than for him since it seems unlikely that the Dems will nominate anyone under any form of investigation (and lacking the House the GOP won’t be able to fabricate scandals as easily as they did with Benghazi and Emailgate).
    So I’d say Trump and his party are in an unenviable position though it does seem to hinge on how the Dem primary proceeds and concludes.


    • I suspect the Dem primaries are going to be fascinating in 2020. The nine states with votes currently scheduled on March 3 include the two largest states by population, and four of the 12 largest, totaling a third of the US population. By March 17, states totaling over half of the US population will have voted. New York hasn’t set a date yet — if they believe in favorite son/daughter and name-recognition effects, you would think they will also choose to go very early so that Gillibrand doesn’t get blown out in the first three weeks of March. It seems at least possible that by March 17 the field could be reduced to a small number of candidates most of whom skipped the February events altogether. Certainly if I were one of the three or four leading Dem candidates come Jan 1, 2020, I would be spending my time in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and Arizona — all of which vote by March 17 — rather than Iowa or New Hampshire.


        • Hopefully the winnowing goes in a pragmatic direction. I had a lot of respect for the Dem primary process in 08. Maybe the Bush/GOP fatigue and the grand pendulum was such that no Republican had a chance anyway. Still, the ability of a better candidate to defeat the inevitable, establishment figure seemed to me like a sign of real strength. The system got it right when all the pull was in another direction. Then 2016 happened.


          • Well here’s the thing: 2008 enabled 2016, the one followed from the other. HRC cashed in the chits she’d been collecting to get the nod in 2016 and the biggest and earliest of those checks were written for her in 2008 after Obama won the nomination. If that god(ess?) damned waste of skin Mark Penn hadn’t been involved in 2008.. ugh!
            That being said, I still think the Dems are functioning pretty well as a party, especially in contrast to the alternative.


            • Given that we can expect the field to exclude bizarre partisan media personalities and others with no policymaking experience of any kind I think you’re right. But this is where I have to add that I still see a decent possibility of getting it wrong. Very different circumstances but the gubernatorial election in my home state serves as an example of what a goofy primary can do.


        • The changes to delegate rules are purely cosmetic. The supers never did anything to alter an outcome by vote, and their pledged support was literally nothing more than endorsements from major politicians and party figures for one candidate over another.

          Which they’re still free to do and will undoubtedly do.

          At most, it was a purely optical change to shut-down a regular line of complaint by a tiny minority of people upset their candidate lost (this wasn’t new with Sanders. There’s always a group that does that. They’ll latch onto something and complain bitterly about it). Which would be worth it, except I’m sure the same people will simply decide it was something else nefarious. An inside job, or a media hit piece, or whatnot.

          Then again, since it doesn’t really change anything — it’s not like it matters.


          • All Superdelegates did was make the obvious *REALLY* obvious.

            The fact that they want to make the obvious less obvious indicates something about the attitudes toward the thing that used to be the way it was for as long as anybody could remember.

            Then again, since it doesn’t really change anything — it’s not like it matters.

            This tells me that this won’t be the last thing that changes with the nomination process.

            I’m waiting to see what AOC says.


          • I agree it isn’t a substantive change but the optics have some mild weight as does the understanding of their new role. Basically I wouldn’t expect the party delegates to be very forthright about endorsing a single establishment candidate early.


    • liberal purity politics can be expected to be mostly absent (or even inverted)

      The current ascendancy of the left wing (e.g. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) of the Democratic party makes me doubt that this is the case, or that it will be the case before the primaries start. 2024, sure, a democrat will win, but unless they get a liberal centrist (not Kamala Harris) on the ticket, they will basically be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory like they almost always do.


      • I can grant that I could be wrong (as I not infrequently am on prognosticating) but I am old enough now to have watched the purity politics of liberalism across several presidential cycles now.
        I watched liberal purity politics depress turnout and siphon off more left wing votes to Ralph Nader in 2000 with youthful incredulity and it allowed George W manage to aww-shucks his way into office by a razor thin margin*.
        In the following 2008 cycle (and also in 2004) that fetish for liberal lefty purity was mostly absent or even inverted. There wasn’t a Nader figure or major lefty movement stymieing Kerry or Obama.
        Then in 2016 I watched with middle aged horror as that same liberal purity fetish, revived by eight years of Obama’s friendly administration, rear its head in the body of Bernie Sanders and hobble HRC’s campaign. Once again it enabled a Republican opponent to wriggle over the finish line by the narrowest of margins*.

        That seems like a pattern to me. I am predicting that even if the leftier candidates lose the nomination battle; which they most likely will because the Democratic Party and its voter base is a hell of a lot less left wing than Conservatives, Republicans, the mewling BSDI media and the Internet left wing mandarin’s say it is. I don’t expect that one of them will run an insurgency campaign and split the ticket or that leftier voters will stay home in a huff.

        *Which is not, however, to excuse Gore or Clinton for their own decisions. 2000 and 2016 were winnable had they made different choices. Not to try and distance themselves from their boss, an enormously talented political operator and a popular peacetime and economic prosperity president in the case of Gore and to run a low energy campaign taking things for granted that assuredly shouldn’t have been taken for granted in the case of HRC.


        • This is a great point. I’m not sure that the thirst for purity over pragmatism is gone this time, though. If anything, the argument seems to be that if Obama was bad, it’s because he wasn’t pure *ENOUGH*.

          You know why Clinton lost? Because she was compromised. You know who *WOULD* have won? Someone purer.

          Kerry represented pragmatism over Dean.
          Obama represented purity over Clinton.


          • Gone is a useless measure; ideologically nothing is gone, in our internet world, and nothing ever will be.
            Will purity politics be electorally significant in causing reduced turnout or defections to a further left 3rd party candidate like it was in 2000 or 2016? I think history suggests not and I haven’t seen much to suggest that history won’t repeat itself in 2020.

            Also I disagree on Obama over Clinton. He represented idealism, sure, but he sure wasn’t purity. He was a mostly blank screen and everyone projected their hopes onto him. Along with Mark Penn* (and the Clintons) shocking electoral incompetence early on it’s no surprise he won. Obama didn’t stake out any leftier or purer than thou positions vs Clinton beyond that he avoided the war vote while she voted in favor on them and refused to give up her reflexive hawkishness and eat a bug over her vote on the issue.


      • The question “Do you approve/disapprove of X?” has an implied “Do you approve/disapprove of X compared to Y?” in it.

        Right now, the implied question strikes me as being “Do you approve/disapprove of Trump compared to Generic Democrat?”

        Hell yes, I disapprove of Trump compared to Generic Democrat!

        Change the question to “Do you approve/disapprove of Trump compared to Elizabeth Warren?” and you will see some answers change.


        • I guess I’m still confused; as Brandon indicates in the OP Trump has already had horse race polling done for head to head match ups where he’s paired with specific names (he polls pretty badly in that methodology). So why would Warren being formally running, as if anyone had any doubts she was running, boost Trumps numbers? Maybe if she gets the nomination it’d boost him (assuming that we buy the premise that she’s got a political tin ear and makes him look good in comparison)?


          • Because the question will have officially changed from Generic to Actual.

            This will *NOT* move anyone who is on the “I would vote for The Devil Himself over Trump!” side of things.

            But in the mushy could-go-either-way camp? Yeah, I could see Warren moving numbers for Trump.

            And that’s before we get into what happens when the loudest Warren supporters get their hands on microphones.


            • Heh, well according to that logic then the Dems are fished since there’ll be lots of specific people throwing their hats into the ring. If your analysis is correct after a few candidates declare and a few people on twitter and the internet start obnoxiously supporting them (left wingers mind, right wing twitter and internet nuts lack this power apparently) then Trump will have landslide victory numbers and will win every state.


              • No, I am absolutely *NOT* arguing that the Dems are sunk before the election even starts. The more hats in the ring, the better. A fractious primary is pretty much exactly what the Democratic Party needs to win.

                That said, the Republican Party seems to be pretty good at defeating Democrats from Northeastern States (Massachusetts specifically).


                  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about Klocuchar. However i also heard some Minn. liberals on a podcast wonder if her brand of nice wouldn’t work well in the rest of the country. They said part of her success comes from having a Minn. famous dad which didn’t mean she wasn’t good. Just that her success in Minn. wasn’t super predictive.


                    • Happily the primary should sort that out.

                      If Klocuchar’s reputation of middle of the road pragmatism, reliable but not crazy liberalism, organizational strength and general relatability is merited then that should show it pretty well in the primary and she’ll do well. Likewise in the general she’d be fearsome since she’d contrast spectacularly with Trump everywhere and punch over her weight in the Midwest which is a flat out must have territory for him and a region he already has potentially lost by running a bog standard republican administration for 4 years.

                      If her famous dad and background legged her up and she’s actually only those things on paper? The knife fight primary she’ll have to endure will reveal that pretty fast.


  2. The 2020 election can’t be analyzed in conventional terms, because the incumbent President, and his entire party, are not conventional.

    Conventional politicians and parties have a coherent suite of positions and attitudes that form an overall worldview.
    For example Reagan and Carter both had positions on economics, foreign policy, crime and culture which could be understood as a general worldview.
    One could accept it or reject it, but they were coherent and accessible.

    Trump, and the GOP which has been remade in his image, is a single issue candidate without an accessible worldview. Their sole issue, to the exclusion of all others is ethnic/ cultural resentment.

    His supporters have only this in common. They are divided on foreign policy and economic policy, but none of those matter. Regardless of how Trump behaves with regard to Syria or China tariffs, he won’t gain or lose a single vote.

    The election will be essentially a referendum on white male resentment.


      • I didn’t say we have to run solely as opponents of white male resentment.

        But we do have to acknowledge that the GOP has one and only one message to offer, of a world in which white men are in command.

        So the Democrat will speak to alleviating the effect of outsourcing; the Republican will speak about black athletes kneeling;

        The Democrat will speak about community policing; The Republican will speak about Mexican rapists and Muslim “No-Go” zones.

        The Democrat will speak about X; the Republican will speak about Merry Christmas, Jesus, school prayer, sophomores at Evergreen college, and men in dresses barging into little girl’s bathrooms.

        We can choose our messaging, but we don’t get to choose theirs.


  3. Trump will most likely lose the popular vote in 2020. His path to victory remains the same as it did in 2016, win via the Electoral College. One reason why Trump was able to win the electoral college is that his persona gave him a unique credibility with the residents of rust belt city while Clinton appeared to be an avatar of globalization. Luckily for the Democratic Party, Trump’s policies have caused him to lose this unique credibility.

    The Democratic Party should avoid the call to go full woke against Trump though. The best challenger needs to have a charisma to beat Trump and credibility in the rust belt because the Electoral College still exists. Identity politics can’t be entirely ignored because of the needs and wants that the Democratic base, the people who actually show up in primaries and caucuses to select the Presidential nominee, has.


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