Does Osama's Bullet-Filled Corpse Make Obama's Re-Election Bulletproof?
President Barack Obama's poll numbers jumped significantly this week on news that the United States had found and killed terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden. The President's approval rating jumped 11% to 57%, his highest rating in nearly two years. Is his approval rating high enough for Republicans to write off the 2012 elections?
Recent history suggests that would be a bad move for Republicans. President George W. Bush saw a similar spike in his numbers following the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, including a high-water mark of 60% approval in December of 2003. Bush barely hung on to defeat Senator John Kerry in the 2004 elections a mere 11 months later.
Twenty years ago, the first President Bush was in an even more impressive poll position. Following a brief, successful war in Iraq, Bush's approval ratings reached a high of 91%. The major potential Democratic challengers for the 1992 election declined to run, including New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Tennessee Senator Al Gore. The reluctance of top candidates to run opened to door for Governors Jerry Brown of California and Bill Clinton of Arkansas. After a lengthy primary season, Clinton clinched the nomination. He went on to be one of the most popular and successful presidents of the twentieth century.
Oddly enough, presidential elections can be explained as a function of the electorate's interpretation of the economy in the period preceding the election. In other words, it has nothing to do with the popularity of a president or his individual proposals, plans, or platform, and everything to do with the economy.
Allen Lichtman and Ken DeCell worked out a theory ahead of the 1988 presidential election where they could predict the winner of any presidential election, given the state of the economy before the election. To test the theory, they announced in the May 8th, 1988 edition of the Washingtonian that Vice President George Bush would win election as President that November. This was despite polls showing Democratic nominee up 12% over Bush, along with the fact that no sitting Vice President had been elected President in over 100 years. Bush easily won.
While the 2012 elections will feature an incumbent and therefore not be an exact replica of the 1988 model, observers whose investment strategy depends on who wins the White House may want to take measure of the economy and place their bets accordingly. President Obama may not want to get too confident that these high poll numbers will last much beyond this month, and Republicans who fancy themselves presidential material may want to ignore this data blip and go forth and file their formal paperwork. After all, it worked out well for that Clinton fellow.
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