President Barack Obama’s supporters were encouraged by recent polls that showed his job approval rating climbing near the 50 percent mark. That figure is still low compared to that of several other presidents seeking reelection in the post-World War II era. However, since Gallup began such national polls in the mid-1940s, five presidents have had lower approval ratings during their reelection bid. Here’s how those presidents fared in the polls, and on Election Day.
5. President Gerald Ford, 45 Percent Approval Rating
President Ford hit his election year polling low in June 1976, with 49 percent of Americans approving of his performance as president. Ford was not helped in his battle for reelection by a blistering challenge from former actor Ronald Reagan, a nomination battle that ended in the Republican National Convention in August — the last time a party decided its candidate at a national convention. Voters in general were unenthusiastic about Ford, and facing the exciting campaign of national political newcomer Jimmy Carter, Ford lost his bid for reelection, garnering 48 percent of the national vote to 50.1 percent for Carter.
4. President Harry S. Truman, 36 Percent
Imagine a theoretical worst-case scenario for President Obama heading into the fall 2012 election: $6 per gallon gas, a conflict with Iran, even a Republican ticket that is surging in popularity. All that would pale in comparison to the challenges faced by President Truman in his reelection bid in 1948. A Gallup poll taken in April 1948 found only 36 percent of Americans approved of Truman’s performance. Truman faced public discontent across the board, in dealing with labor unrest, a Republican majority in the U.S. Congress, and the question of America’s role in rebuilding postwar Europe. Few gave him a chance at reelection that fall, with polls that summer showing him trailing the Republican nominee, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, by double digits.
Even worse, Truman’s unpopular policies and rifts in the Democratic Party led to not one, but two new parties to split from the Democrats. The Progressive Party, which opposed Truman’s initiatives aimed at halting the spread of Soviet influence in Europe, nominated former U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace as its candidate. And Truman’s call to advance civil rights for blacks alienated many Southern Democrats, who formed a States Rights Democratic Party and nominated South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond as its presidential candidate (yes, the same Thurmond who served in the U.S. Senate until shortly before his death at age 100 in 2003). Truman even struggled within what was left of the fractured Democratic Party, as some power brokers openly tried to replace him with a more popular figure. Among one of the possible candidates courted to replace Truman: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had yet to declare his political affiliation. Throughout the fall campaign, Truman trailed Dewey in polls and political observers expected an easy Dewey victory. Truman himself went to bed in his hotel room on election night, awakened around midnight, heard a radio announcer predict Dewey would win, and went back to sleep. Of course, the next day, Truman celebrated his historic reelection. Expect to hear this story more than once if Obama’s poll numbers take a turn for the worse before the election.
3. President Lyndon B. Johnson, 35 Percent
For all the good President Johnson did in promoting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his presidency will forever be defined by America’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War. As that conflict escalated, Johnson’s approval ratings nosedived, hitting a low of 35 percent in August 1968. By then, of course, Johnson had already renounced his bid for reelection, with his surprise declaration on March 31 that “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” His Gallup Poll approval rating just before that had been 36 percent in early March.
2. President Jimmy Carter, 31 Percent
President Carter presided over an economy with such horrific numbers they seem hard to imagine today — an annual inflation rate that averaged 14 percent, and a prime interest rate that would hit an all-time record of 21.5 percent shortly after election day that fall. Add the public’s frustration with the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis, and Carter’s approval rating hit an election-year low of 31 percent that June. As expected, Republican Ronald Reagan trounced Carter in the presidential election, winning 44 states.
1. President George H.W. Bush, 29 Percent
At one-time extremely popular with the American public — Bush boasted an 89 percent approval rating immediately after the 1991 Gulf War — the president still had a Gallup approval rating in the mid-40s at the beginning of 1992. But as the election neared, his approval rating hit a low of 29 percent in mid-summer, and stood at just 34 percent as voters headed to the polls that November. Add a third-party candidacy from Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton won the race for president with 49.2 percent of the popular vote. Incidentally, Clinton’s approval rating had been as high as 60 percent in the weeks before the election, proving that poll approval ratings don’t always translate into votes.
One More: President George W. Bush
In case you’re wondering, President George W. Bush hit an election year approval rating low of 46 percent in May 2004, before winning reelection that fall.