Elect, Disapprove, Elect — Rinse And Repeat

I was reading the Economist on a plane today, reading a story about McCain’s and the Republican Party’s chances in November. I picked up on something that hit me like a brick.

It is rare for a party to win a third presidential term. The only time it has happened since Harry Truman’s time was in 1988. Back then the retiring president, Ronald Reagan, had a job-approval rating in the high 50s. George Bush’s job-approval rating is stuck in the low 30s. Nearly three in four Americans tell pollsters that the country is on the “wrong track”.

Now, people may have many suggestions for the underlying meaning here. But I thought about it, and I began to wonder exactly how presidential approval ratings and the “right track/wrong track” polling data trends during most presidential administrations. Luckily, Charles from Political Arithmetik has done some of this research, and provides the below graph:

He goes on (in another post) to point out that Presidential Approval rating closely correlates Right Direction / Wrong Track poll data.

So what does this tell us? Well, you can interpret it several ways. Most presidents who achieved a second term had approval ratings roughly similar to when they took office, or at least above 50%. The single example of a party holding power for more than 8 years was Reagan->Bush, where Reagan was as popular after 8 years as he was after 0 or 4. The singular counterexample was Clinton, who was more popular after 8 years than he was during most of his presidency. Of course, the following election was very close, and to some nutcases on the left, is still in dispute. A partial counterexample would be the transition from Eisenhower to JFK as well; I say partial because Ike had a lull of lower approval during his second term, though he still was above 50% in November 1960. But I’d point out that the election following his term was also very closely fought, similar to 2000, with Nixon only barely being defeated by Kennedy.

But I think there’s something more that this data tells us. It seems that we elect a President, with high hopes as to what he’ll accomplish. He fails and we hate him, so we elect the other party. The other party is elected with high hopes, fails, and we hate him. The cycle continues. Americans have an overwhelming tendency to elect politicians who then prove to disappoint. I think with the impending election of Obama in November, the cycle will only continue, because Obama cannot live up to the savior-like expectations he has been given.

What does this say about the collective American voting public?

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
-Albert Einstein

We simply don’t have much luck electing politicians that satisfy us. Perhaps that is an indictment of American voters, perhaps that is an indictment of anyone megalomaniacal enough to seek the office. Either way, I think I’ll have a new chant for November, when we finally get rid of George Bush and replace him with a “national greatness conservative” or a “hope-creating socialist”.

The bum is gone! Long live the bum!

  • Norm Nelson

    This is what I like to call systemic data. It shows the behavior of the system. There are several constraints that define the system, and those constraints determine the behavior of it.

    For example why are there two major parties? What makes two such a magic number in our current system. It’s the constraints. Primarily it is the voting method of 1st past the post. This constraint works to eliminate 3rd parties by moving them to the spoiler category. As long as this spoiler factor is in place two will remain a magic number.

    You want to change our system then you need to change the constraints. That’s why I think that if you really want change, we need to institute some form of ranked choice balloting. That way we eliminate the spoiler effect and independents will have a choice to vote other than “against the party in power.” Which of course means the other “major” party since voting 3rd party is a vote for the status quo.