The wild, wacky exhibit that has been the Republican presidential primary could be making more voters yearn for someone like the person currently sitting in the White House.
And that could be a big problem for the GOP.
The public-opinion organisation Gallup, which surveys the approval rating of the sitting president on a daily basis, found earlier this week that President Barack Obama’s rating had jumped to its highest point in three years.
His weekly average rating over the February 29 to March 6 period hit 50%, up five points from two months ago. For Obama, whose approval ratings have been stuck in the mid-to-low 40% range for much of his second term, it was a notable bump.
“While it’s hard to pinpoint precisely why Obama’s approval rating has risen among Democrats recently, there are a number of plausible explanations,” wrote Andrew Dugan, a Gallup analyst, and Frank Newport, the organisation’s editor in chief.
One of the explanations, the pair concurred, was that “the unusual status of the Republican primary race — exemplified in particular by frontrunner Donald Trump’s campaign style and rhetoric — may serve to make Obama look statesmanlike in comparison.”
The 50% level might seem arbitrary. But historical precedent suggests it could bode well for Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state who is the Democratic frontrunner to succeed him.
The past few weeks, especially, of the Republican primary have been marked by at-times vicious assaults from the candidates directed at each other. A robust “Never Trump” movement has sprang up in something of an unprecedented effort to deny the frontrunner the nomination.
“President Obama, no matter the political stakes, has always spoken to Americans’ aspirations and better angels,” said Ben LaBolt, a former spokesman for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “It’s hard to argue that’s what has driven the campaign narrative this year.”
Indeed, Trump canceled a huge Friday-night campaign rally in Chicago amid mass protests there. Cable-news stations played an endless loop that night of fist fights and racially charged confrontations between Trump’s critics and supporters.
The president’s approval ratings at this point are far better than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, off whose unpopularity Obama thrived. His level was most directly comparable to former President Ronald Reagan, who in March of 1988 held a 51% approval rating, according to Gallup.
That same year, voters selected George H.W. Bush — Reagan’s vice president — to succeed him.
“Yes,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, when asked if Obama’s apparent rising popularity poses a problem for the Republican Party.
“Certainly, going into an election spring and summer, it’s better to have an incumbent president increasingly popular rather than less popular if you’re the incumbent party,” he told Business Insider.
The numbers present a striking contrast to some data points associated with the current Republican presidential frontrunner.
Trump’s favorability numbers are without precedent for a modern general-election candidate, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. His net-favorability rating was a negative-39, the lowest in the history of the NBC/WSJ poll for a major presidential candidate.
“I’ve been doing this 1964, which is the Goldwater years,” NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart told NBC of the relative unpopularity of many of the candidates. “To me, this is the low point. I’ve seen the disgust and the polarization. Never, never seen anything like this. They’re not going up; they’re going down.”
Of course, Obama’s approval rating at this point is actually lower than that of President Bill Clinton in March 2000. But as Gallup noted, the 2016 election is somewhat different than the one that featured George W. Bush running against Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president.
Hillary Clinton is attaching herself to much of Obama’s legacy. Despite the strong primary challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, in many ways, Clinton has run a incumbent-style campaign, and she has much of the party’s establishment rallying behind her candidacy. That wasn’t the case for Gore in 2000.
As Gallup’s Dugan and Newport wrote:
In comparison, the two most recent candidates running to succeed a two-term president of the same party — John McCain running to follow the unpopular Bush, and Al Gore trying to succeed the popular but scandal-prone Bill Clinton — went to greater pains to ensure they were not associated with the outgoing president.
They concluded: “Prior to that, George H.W. Bush in 1988 presented himself as a natural heir to the Reagan legacy and was able to win his own term.”
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