With Sunday marking the one-year countdown to Election Day 2012 and his approval rating stuck in the low 40s, President Obama will have to defy American electoral history if he is to win re-election.
At 43 percent approval in a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 28-30, Mr. Obama recently referred to himself as an “underdog” — with good reason. Of all the presidents since World War II whose job-approval scores were lower than 50 percent one year before Election Day, only one went on to win a second term.
That was President Nixon, whose job approval stood at 49 percent in November 1971. He rebounded to defeat Democrat George McGovern in a landslide in 1972.
Mr. Obama does have some advantages. He is still a formidable fundraiser, having amassed more than $150 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee this year.
Also, his re-election operation is more robust than any of the GOP camps, which are waging a long and costly primary battle. Mr. Obama’s campaign is able to build on a 50-state network from 2008, an email list of more than 9 million potential supporters and an experienced staff with unequaled savvy in digital marketing and social networking.
In early polling of head-to-head matchups with potential GOP candidates, Mr. Obama comes out on top in nearly every instance. One poll in the battleground state of Florida this week showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tied with Mr. Obama.
Those factors give Democrats hope that Mr. Obama can pull out a victory.
“It’s too early to write the script or the strategy, but here’s what I know: The odds are 2012 will be close,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, the presidential campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000. “There are so many factors that will determine the outcome of the election next year: mood of the country, opponents, money and message and changing demographics of the election.”
The popularity of presidential incumbents at the three-year mark has ranged from Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s high of 78 percent in November 1955 to Democrat Jimmy Carter’s low of 32 percent in November 1979. Mr. Eisenhower had no trouble defeating Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Mr. Carter lost, overwhelmingly, to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, in the midst of the Vietnam War, had a popularity rating of 42 percent in November 1967; he chose not to run for re-election in 1968. The only president since World War II to lose re-election with a 50-plus approval rating in his third year was Republican George H.W. Bush, who stood at 59 percent job approval in November 1991 but lost to Bill Clinton in a three-way race in 1992.
The prospect of a third-party candidate in 2012, perhaps someone with the support of the tea party movement, intrigues Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“If we have third-party or independent candidates, it is possible for Obama to have a low- to mid-40s approval rating and win,” Mr. Sabato said. “Nixon ‘68 and Clinton ‘92 each got 43 percent of the vote. [Woodrow] Wilson and [Abraham] Lincoln [in 1912 and 1860, respectively] received around 40 percent of the vote in multicandidate fields. The structure of the ballot will matter enormously, depending on whether we have additional candidates and who they are.”
But Mr. Sabato cautioned that job-approval numbers are meaningful only in the late summer or early fall of the election year.
“Presidential approval one full year out is not helpful in determining what will occur in November 2012,” Mr. Sabato said. “The old rule used to be that a president had to have approval in the 50 percent range at election time to get a second term. But George W. Bush had 48 percent in early November 2004 and still won. His superior financing and organization pulled him over the finish line against John Kerry.”
Another statistical guide that has been much discussed is the unemployment rate’s impact on a president’s political fortunes. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has won a second term when the unemployment rate was higher than 7.2 percent. Reagan won in 1984 with a jobless rate at 7.2 percent.