A recent Fivethirtyeight.com piece compared President Donald Trump’s approval rating on Election Day to other presidents’ numbers on their Election Days. Every incumbent president in the last seventy years who had a net-negative approval rating on Election Day went on to lose re-election, with the exception of Harry S. Truman. He had a -5.9 net-negative approval rating in 1948, yet won re-election in one of the greatest upsets in U.S. election history.
Presidents George H.W. Bush (-22.9) and Jimmy Carter (-16.9) had net-negative approval ratings on Election Day 1992 and 1980, respectively, and both were defeated for re-election. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson (+59), Dwight D. Eisenhower (+48.8), Richard Nixon (+32.7), Ronald Reagan (+24.9), and Bill Clinton (+16) enjoyed overwhelmingly positive approval ratings on Election Day and were re-elected comfortably. Presidents Barack Obama (+2.4), Gerald Ford (+2.3), and George W. Bush (+0.9) had modest approval ratings and their re-election victories were closer.
President-elect Joe Biden’s net favorability Election Day was +7, nearly 13 points better than Mr. Trump’s. Approval ratings are not the final word or only critical election indicator, but this time, the more popular candidate won.
The questions now are how long will Mr. Biden’s honeymoon be, will Americans give him higher approval ratings as he enters office, and does Mr. Trump’s approval ratings improve over time once he leaves office? Presidents generally enjoy a grace period their first few months in office, while outgoing presidents become more popular the longer they are out of office. The presidential transition, Mr. Trump’s next act and Mr. Biden’s early handling of COVID-19 will influence how both men are perceived.