Monday, January 14, 2013

Yet More Monday Cranky Blogging

Gallup has a new piece out by Andrew Dugan about a supposed "second term curse," and noting that every second-term president in the Gallup era except for Reagan and Clinton had lower approval ratings averages in their second term than their first term.

Watch out!

A lot of this may only be regression to the mean. That is, if presidential approval is a coin flip set to an average around 55% over the long haul, then what you're going to find is that presidents with a first-term average north of that are going to fall back -- and those who fell short of it will rally. And guess what? The two (of seven in Gallup's summary) who improved were the two who, up to now, had the lowest first-term rankings. Reagan and Clinton tied at 50% average Gallup approval in their first terms; they held the record for re-election, until Barack Obama at 49% just edged past it.

One question is what would have happened to Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush if they had been re-elected. It's possible they were just bad at the job (surely Carter was) and would have been very unpopular no matter what -- but it's also possible that they would have produced at least one addition to the "plus" side of things.

But Gallup ignores them by only looking at two-term presidents. And guess what? Most two-term presidents were pretty popular in their first terms -- that's how they got re-elected!

That's not to say that there's nothing to the possibility that second terms can be rough on presidents. But if what you're doing is looking at the numbers, you need to be careful about what they're really telling us.

Which is mostly to avoid a terrible recession or a war which appears pointless and hopeless. Oh, other things matter too; Clinton does better than Reagan, for example, mainly because of those other things. But the big hits, the stuff that chases first term presidents out of office or makes second term presidents unpopular, are mostly terrible economies or awful wars. But outside of Watergate, that's what's going to really cripple a president, sending his approval ratings south of 40% for an extended period.

The question is whether there's something inherent in second terms that leads to trouble, and that's a big and complicated question. But we're not going to get at it with this kind of analysis.


  1. Re Gerald Ford: In order to be reelected, you first need to be elected.

    1. That raises an interesting question: How was the '76 race covered? Did journalists say that both Ford and Carter were running for election? Or were they lazy and mix up "incumbent" with "seeking re-election?"

  2. I will maintain, that a day-by-day, fully-flushing -out-all-the-hypotheticals-of-every-decision analysis of Carter's presidency would reveal that his decisions were at least at defensible, singly or as a whole, as any decisions of Ford'
    s, Reagan's or GHW Bush's administrations, and further that Carter was the victim of a tendentious, hypocritical press corps tagging him for many faults that their preferred Republican (or in a few cases, preferred Kennedy Democrat) politicians also shared but were never criticized for.

    The heaviest and most cruel blow, which is never discussed and is probably unknown to our younger readers, is how all the major TV networks of the time ran a "Day XX of the Hostage crisis" box in the upper right corner of every edition of every news broadcast from November '79 to Jan '81 with no discussion ever of the many factors that led to the Iranian hostage situation (anbd the many contributions of previous administrations and Washington national-security group-think.

    It is now known that Reagan confidante Bill Casey was negotiating with the ayatollahs to get them to keep from negotiating seriously with the Carter administration.

  3. How many two term presidents have there even been in the Gallup era? If Reagan and Clinton were more popular in their second term, that leaves only Bush II, Eisenhower, and Truman (and maybe FDR?) with more or less full two term presidencies (I don't see how it makes sense to include LBJ, who barely had a first term, or Nixon, whose second term was cut short and who was, at any rate, a special case). 2 who became more popular and 4 who became less popular hardly seems a very convincing model.

  4. I dunno, I'd rate Carter #3 of the six Presidents I've known - basically a tie with elder Bush, but on the right side of things so that breaks it - and #4 in the last ten.

    Was Carter just bad at the job? I don't know. But he was right more of the time than the rest, so isn't that what really matters?


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