Favorability impressions of presidential candidates have been a mainstay of polling since Gallup began doing them in the 1984 election. That gives seven elections to refer to as a base to understanding these numbers.
While much has been made of the 8% unemployment rate that is supposed to mean Barack Obama is headed to defeat, the favorability ratings may be more significant.
The argument that Obama is going to lose with an 8% unemployment rate reflects that no president since the end of World War II has been elected with an unemployment number that high. It is conveniently ignored that Franklin Roosevelt racked up one of the most impressive landslides in 1936 against Alf Landon. The unemployment rate was 16.9%.
The baseline for reelection is an unemployment figure of 7.5%. That means Obama is doomed, according to pundits. Of course, they conveniently forget that while Gerald Ford lost in 1976 with unemployment at 7.7% and George H.W. Bush lost in 1992 with it at 7.5%, Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984 with unemployment at 7.5%. The unemployment was even worse in 1984 than when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980. That year unemployment stood at 7.1%.
While that does not disprove that 7.5% is a magical number upon which an incumbent loses, it is not feasible that Reagan’s 1984 landslide (equal to Roosevelt’s in 1936) would have led to defeat if unemployment had been 7.6% instead of 7.5%.
What may generate a more realistic guide to the election are the favorability ratings of the candidates.
Reagan’s victory in 1984 occurred under unusually bad economic times for a president running for reelection, but Reagan maintained favorability ratings close to 60%. His opponent, Walter Mondale, had just the opposite. Until this year, Mondale was the only candidate nominated by a major party with a negative favorability rating. At 9/11/84, Reagan was viewed positively 60%-38%. Mondale was slightly negative at 47%-49%.
More than the economy, that spelled Mondale’s defeat. This year, Mitt Romney faces a deficit even worse than Mondale’s. A recent survey has Romney at 40%-51%. Frankly, this is an atrocious figure. Worse for Romney is that people have become polarized with those who have strong opinions firming their view of Romney 21%-33% on the negative side.
It is not rosy for Obama either. He only holds a 50%-47% positive favorability. Views have hardened regarding him as well with 29%-34% being the strongly held positions.
Obviously, Obama’s numbers are not as glowing as Reagan’s were. Actually, Obama’s numbers are the worse for any sitting president since 1984. No sitting president has had favorability numbers with a margin less than 11% favorable at around this time of the campaign. Those numbers belonged to George W. Bush, who squeaked to victory in 2004. His opponent, John Kerry’s numbers were only slightly less favorable.
Perhaps most significant is that the widest gap between candidates was the 1984 election when the favorability gap between Reagan and Mondale was 13%. This year is close to that with Obama leading Romney by 10%.
What does all this mean? It is hard to tell because the American public is forced to make choices with candidates they are not excited about. However, it is a lot easier to imagine an Obama reelection when 50% of Americans see him favorably, than a Romney election when he carries the burden of the largest unfavorables on record.