Polls have always been a troublesome thing, but as landline-use decreases and publicly professed political correctness increases, they have become even more difficult.
The night before Barack Obama’s reelection, Mitt Romney believed his pollsters and didn’t even prepare a concession speech for his supporters in Boston’s Convention Center. Four years later, The New York Times exemplified poll findings on Election Day, pegging Hillary Clinton’s victory chances at 85 percent — a modest decline from the 93-percent chance they gave her two weeks before the big day. Clinton also believed her pollsters, and didn’t even deliver a concession speech, or show up for her fans in New York’s Javits Center.
Constrained resource, quick turnarounds, and hungry reporters and impatient campaigns all lead to polls suffering from poor sample sizes, inaccurate party distribution, counts of registered versus likely voters, and “the Shy Tory Factor,” or respondents who don’t want to share their support for the conservative.
There is one public poll, however, that is still generally trustworthy for the moment: the direction of the country poll. It’s not a partisan question: It doesn’t ask if you’re a liberal, a conservative, or a moderate, or if you like Donald Trump’s Twitter habits or Barack Obama’s health care law. It’s a gauge of the general feel of the country. Are things working for you and your family? A majority of Americans have felt the country is going in the wrong direction since the question was first asked in 1972, but the question for the politicians is: how bad are we doing?
On Feb. 23, 2012, while Republicans were battling for the nomination, President Obama’s approval rating was 48.6 percent. At the same time, only 34.2 percent of the country thought things were going in the right direction while 59.6 percent believed we were on the wrong track. Romney, we know, lost the nomination and then lost the election. People, it seems, really need to think it’s all going to hell before they replace a sitting president.
In the winter of 1992, George H.W. Bush, the last man to lose reelection, watched from the Oval Office as his polls tanked. And the country? They really thought it was going to hell. According to an ABC poll, just 18 percent thought things were going well while a whopping 79 percent disagreed — the kind of numbers we wouldn’t see again until the 2008 recession.
They’re also the kind of numbers we had not previously experienced since February 1980, when a year into the Iranian hostage crisis and the accompanying second oil crisis a mere 20 percent of the country was feeling peachy. The president, Jimmy Carter, was the one-termer who most recently preceded H.W.
Elected presidents don’t generally enter office under that cloud, and Carter was no different, flying to D.C. on a rainbow of American optimism. Promising to restore honor and morality to the White House, he defeated half-term President Gerald Ford, who suffered from right-track numbers in the teens, a fiery primary challenge from Ronald Reagan, and, after pardoning his old boss, plummeting public approval.
So how is the country under President Trump faring? Despite unending negative-media attack, a level of polarization not seen since the 1960s or maybe 1860s, and a literal impeachment vote, America thinks we’re going the right direction. While you’d have to go back to Harry Truman to find a two-term president, Trump is leading in public approval numbers, the percent of Americans who think we’re going the right way is 39.5, while 54.8 think otherwise, according to the Real Clear poll average. Rasmussen, the most bullish of the pollsters, clocked that number for February 2020 at 46 percent right-track, 50 percent wrong-track.
At more than five points above Obama’s February 2012 polling, that’s a good number for the country and the president. At nearly 15 points above the February 2016 numbers Obama left under, it’s phenomenal for the president.
Polls are tricky business. They don’t predict the future. They’re simply a tool that helps us make more educated guesses. But history sets a heck of a record, and by that record, things are looking bright for Donald J. Trump, two-term president.