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Change or more of the same? How a two-term President's approval ratings impact an election

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NPR Morning Edition has been examining Five Big Themes influencing the upcoming presidential election. WGVU has been exploring those themes locally - from voter mood, the middle-class squeeze and the economy. Today, how a two-term president’s approval rating plays into the election process.

During the modern era, only one president succeeded a two-term president of his own party. It’s a rare feat, but President Barack Obama’s approval numbers are inching closer to 50 percent.  WGVU talks with two Michigan political pollsters for their take.

“It’s tough to maintain party control after two terms.”

Bernie Porn is founding president of Lansing-based Epic-MRA, a full-service survey research firm. I asked him about a president’s approval rating as a leading political indicator. Two-term Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each had approval ratings of close to 60 percent.

“Although George H.W. Bush was able to keep the presidency after Reagan, that was more [candidate Michael] Dukakis losing it more than him winning it. So, that probably adds more fire to the normal assumption which I think probably is valid in that it is tough to maintain one party control after two terms. However, this is a very different and unique election cycle largely because of the issues at hand and also the non-establishment candidates that are competing best on the Republican side. So I’m not sure those assumptions this year are necessarily as applicable as they have been in the past.”

“If you’re looking for re-election, any incumbent  who breaks 40 percent on job approval rating tends to win re-election.”

Ed Sarpolus has been in politics for 44 years. He’s the executive director of Lansing-based Target-Insyght, a marketing and public relations firm.

“Obama is over 40 [percent], hovering closer to 50, not as good as 60 or something like that. But the point being - Clinton at least has something to run on.”

That should favor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who many consider the party frontrunner. Not so fast, says Sarpolus. There are the Republican Party candidates and a lot of other numbers to crunch.

“So, if this were a normal, traditional presidential year Obama’s numbers would be better than Clinton’s or Bush’s, the fact that we’ve got low unemployment, job growth, everything you would expect in a good economy. Just the fact that there’s wage stagnation and that drives the perception of President Obama.

"At the same token, we have to look at his opposition numbers. When you look at the general election they’re tanked. Right now, if you look at the Republican Party, they’re telling us if it’s Ted Cruz they’re not going to finance his campaign, technically. If they’re looking for Trump, if he’s one of the two who they’re picking, obviously they’d prefer Rubio or Bush.

"So you have to look at both sides of the numbers; the opposition as well as the Democratic Party who is the incumbent. The second time, even if it’s Trump versus Clinton, the issue here is the fact that Clinton has very high negatives, a lot of it due to her own making. You have the email scandal, but then you have to look at another set of numbers.

"Trump right now, he has such bad numbers among independents and Hispanics and minorities. The bottom line no matter what we have we’re going to have a close election. I will tell you this: if it’s Cruz, even the Republicans assume the Democrats win.  On the Democratic side if it’s Bernie Sanders, who announced this last week that he’s going to raise taxes, the Democrats definitely lose.

"So we’re coming down to who do both parties nominate and the question is what’s the mood going into the fall election."

“These other factors in terms of the emergence of Donald Trump with all of his foibles and all of his problems on issues and how he competes among independent voters and the same thing for Cruz, and also taking into account people like a Bob Dole coming out saying, ‘Well, maybe we better look toward Trump because we don’t trust Cruz’, all of these unusual things that are happening I think changes the dynamics of how you look at it historically.”

An election where Porn suggests there’s Bush fatigue and Clinton fatigue. This is an election cycle where, so far, voters are leaning in favor of political outsiders.

Could history be in the making?

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