An annotated chart about why Presidential approval ratings matter.

Strictly speaking, I am not criticizing the Fix for not drawing a more explicit link between Presidential approval ratings and Senate churn in a midterm election. They established the basic point, which was that both parties are increasingly taking seriously that the President’s current low numbers will translate into Democratic losses in the Senate.  The Monkey Cage spells it out:

Presidential approval is strongly correlated with midterm congressional election outcomes.  Gallup has polled Americans on presidential approval during every midterm election cycle since 1954.  Across the 16 midterm election cycles from 1954 through 2012 the average level of presidential approval during the first quarter (January to March) of the election year is about 58 percent.  Over the available Gallup presidential approval polls for the first quarter of this year, Obama’s approval is significantly below the average, about 42 percent, worse than every other year except 2006 and 1974.

Both sites also show a graph on average Presidential approval ratings in the first quarter of midterm election years, which I have reproduced below… annotated with that year’s gains or losses in the Senate for the President’s party.

approval rating

Or, you can see it as a spreadsheet. ‘Year’ is midterm election year, ‘App’ lumps in the average 1st quarter Gallup approval rating for the sitting President into one of three categories (above 75%, 50% to 74%, 25% to 49%), and ‘G/L ‘ is the number of seats that the President’s party gained or lost in the Senate that year. It’s grim reading for Democrats, this cycle.

Year App G/L
1954 50%+ -2
1958 50%+ -13
1962 75%+ +3
1966 50%+ -3
1970 50%+ +2
1974 25%+ -4
1978 25%+ -3
1982 25%+ +0
1986 50%+ -8
1990 50%+ -1
1994 50%+ -8
1998 50%+ +0
2002 75%+ +2
2006 25%+ -6
2010 25%+ -6
2014 25%+

As you can see, there’s no magic equation for this situation, but generally it’s clear enough that while high Presidential popularity may not gain his party seats, low Presidential popularity is a great way for his party to lose them.  In fact, merely holding the Presidency at all is a great way for his party to lose seats.  Again, this is not a magic bullet. But if you look at that chart… there’s absolutely nothing stopping the Democrats from losing six or more seats this year. In fact, it’s not even unprecedented for the Democrats to lose Senate seats in the double-digits this year: it happened to Eisenhower in 1958, and the country liked him.

So what caused that one to happen? Oh, just an economic recession.

Moe Lane (crosspost)

8 thoughts on “An annotated chart about why Presidential approval ratings matter.”

  1. Remember that the -13 in 1958 occurred when there were 96 Senators instead of 100, so equivalent lossage today would be fractionally larger.

  2. Consider the three most recent times when the President’s party didn’t lose Senate seats in the midterms: 2002 was the first post-9/11 election, 1998 Bill Clinton was fighting against an unpopular impeachment, 1982 was the first election after Reagan being shot. All are unusual circumstances that were in the President’s favor. 1970 I have no explanation for.

  3. The loss by Eisenhower was a surprise. Would like to know more but Google will give me straight liberal reason. Anybody know a good site to read about this?

  4. Doesn’t it now seem harder to gain R seats with so many states now basically one-party rule–Dem?

    1. Not really. Aside from the northeast and California, I don’t think there are that many such states. That’s more of a problem in the House, where the seats are apportioned by population.

  5. I would argue that people generally do not like having 1 party in control of everything for any length of time. Usually the party in power will overreach (or lose their way, Republicans forgot the contract with America at some point prior to the 2006 election) and then there is a correction.

    That being said, people generally don’t like voting out incumbent Representatives and Senators, they may hate the House and Senate in general, yet they keep voting for their representatives and senators. With that being said, when you see a President’s approval ratings being this bad we should see his party particularly suffer in the midterms (generally the people motivated to vote in the midterms are the people that are angry over something that the party in power did). This election is probably far more than that.

    The core issue of this election is probably going to be centered around Obamacare and Obama’s lawless behavior. People are becoming increasingly alarmed about Obama’s executive decrees, the IRS targetting of conservatives coming to light also energizes conservatives. What is really going to hurt Democrats even with groups that ordinarily would not vote in a midterm, or would vote Democrat, is Obamacare. Millions of Americans have already been hurt by Obamacare, and that makes this situation personal to many Americans. They don’t appreciate being called liars (Harry Reid made a serious mistake with that comment). They feel like they were lied to and they are very angry. To make matters worse for Democrats, the people up for re-election are many of the core senators that rammed through Obamacare in 2009-2010, which means literally just about every one of them can be tied to Obamacare (guess some of them are wishing they had listened to Republicans back then, huh).

    Unless the establishment Republicans sabotage things, I’d say we’re looking at potentially taking the Senate easily and potentially taking seats in the House. I really wish people in San Francisco displayed more rational thought and voted Nancy Pelosi out of office.

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