(Bill Moloney, Boston) As all know the polling industry has fallen on hard times of late, culminating in the monumental misreading almost all outfits experienced in the 2016 election.  Adding insult to injury Gallup reports that 57% of Americans do not believe polls are reliable, while an undetermined but significant slice of the electorate refuses to respond to polls as a matter of principle.

Nonetheless those of us who have been diagnosed as incurable “political junkies” are unable to break our addiction to daily visits to Real Clear Politics which provides a constant stream of state and national poll results and for the big questions even averages them out for the mathematically challenged.

The occasion for this rumination is the publication of an NBC-Wall St. Journal poll on Presidential Approval rating taken March 10-14.  The NBC/WSJ poll is generally well regarded because it is done on a specifically bipartisan basis being supervised by respected political operatives from both parties- Democrat Fred Yang and Republican Bill McInturff.

While President Trump’s Approval rating has climbed four percentage points (39 to 43) since January mainly owing to a jump among Independents (33 to 45) attributed to a strengthening economy and the tax cut, he nonetheless retains the lowest rating of any modern President fourteen months into a first term.

To gain a broader perspective on what these rankings mean it is useful to look at where all Presidents since World War II rank at the 14th month point in their terms.  Here is the list.  Note that Presidents Clinton to Trump are NBC/WSJ; those prior came from the Gallup Poll.

Kennedy Mar 1962 79 % Carter Mar 1978 48 %
G.W. Bush Mar 2002 74 % Obama Mar 2010 48 %
G.H.W Bush Mar 1990 71 % Reagan Mar 1982 46 %
Johnson Jan 1965 69 % Truman June 1946 45 %
Eisenhower Mar 1954 64 % Ford Oct 1975 44 %
Clinton Mar 1994 55 % Trump Mar 2018 43 %
Nixon Mar 1970 54 %      


What is striking about Approval Ratings (AR) is their extraordinary volatility.  The highest ever AR was George W. Bush 90% the month after 9/11.  Yet he would leave office with a miserable 25 % seven years later.

Similarly his father achieved an 89 AR the month following lightning victory in the first Gulf War, yet fell to a 29 AR when defeated for re-election just two years later.

Other Presidents whose AR fell into the twenties as their terms ended on sour notes included LBJ (29%) buffeted by domestic upheaval and failed Vietnam policies, Carter (28%) dogged by a bad economy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, Nixon (24%) facing Impeachment over Watergate, and Truman (22%)haunted by the stalemate in Korea and the firing of the highly popular General Douglas MacArthur.

The highest average AR was JFK at 70 % ironically peaking immediately after the disastrous Bay of Pigs (83%) and reaching its low (55 %) the month before his assassination.

Among the five post World War II Presidents who served a full two terms the highest average Approval Rating was Eisenhower (65 %) followed by Clinton (55%), Reagan (50%), Bush (49%) and Obama (48%).

Among the four Presidents whose Approval Rating was below 50% after 14 months three- Truman, Reagan, and Obama -won re-election; only Carter did not.

Of the twelve Presidents since 1945 seven ended badly- three defeated for re-election (Ford, Carter, GHW Bush), three driven from office (Truman, Johnson, Nixon), and one -GW Bush- departing following two years of deep unpopularity.

Of the five Presidents who left office with approval ratings above 50 % (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama) all shared generally sunny upbeat personalities and were rated highly by the public in the key category “understands people like me”.

If one looks for a formula for success, it might be “Good Personality, Good Economy, and No Bad Wars”.  Finally the Historical Record makes clear that unforeseen events (e.g. Dallas, 9/11) can totally upend all polls, Approval Ratings, and Expectations.  History remains the capricious master that will always have the last word.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.