A couple of months ago, I wrote about the "Six–Year Itch" — the clear tendency since the end of World War II for American voters to turn on the party in power by the time of the administration's sixth year in office. We saw ample evidence of that happening in last year's midterms.
I wrote that with presidential approval ratings in mind, but I have been studying the results of the elections a little more closely since I wrote that, and I have concluded that you really can't grasp the situation unless you consider another question that pollsters usually ask.
It concerns the direction of the country, and the question that Gallup tends to ask is this: "In general are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States?"
Pollsters haven't been asking that question very long at least when compared to other basic polling questions. But it's kind of like another question that tries to gauge the country's mood — the one that asks whether people approve or disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The answer in both cases is almost always negative, resoundingly so. That is why presidential nominees' coattails are so important down the ballot in Senate and House races.
It's the trickle–down theory applied to politics, but it still just a theory. Some presidential candidates have been more successful than others in transferring their political popularity to other candidates in their parties.
Folks who are in government service — and those who want to be — are wise to watch the results closely. Just how negative is the response? How did the out–of–power party fare when disapproval of the direction of the country was similar to the level we have today?
Obviously, the lower the better for the incumbent party, but that is seldom the case. The country consistently falls short of most people's expectations — even though, if you study your history, it is clear that this nation has always been a work in progress. To expect it to become a utopia in a single presidency is naive and unrealistic.
Well, there's a lot of that going around.
It's been more than 10 years since the question about the direction of the country got a positive response — and that probably had more to do with the residual effect of the rally–'round–the–flag atmosphere following the 9–11 attacks. Usually, more than 50% of respondents — typically far more than 50% — are negative. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has been over 70% most of the time for years.
Satisfaction with the direction of the country rose into the 30s in the early months of the Obama presidency, but it slipped below 30% by his first Labor Day. It went above 30% in the months before Obama's re–election but quickly fell below 30% again, then briefly returned to the 30s last winter.
Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country isn't always fatal to a president's hope of being re–elected, but it is almost always impossible for a candidate of a term–limited president's party to win if both satisfaction with the direction of the country and approval of a president's job performance are in negative territory.
Barack Obama's most recent approval figure was at 42%, his lowest level in at least a year. Combined with 71% of respondents who currently say the country is going in the wrong direction, that makes Hillary Clinton's task of becoming Obama's successor considerably more daunting.
Does that mean Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States? Possibly, but the selection of the nominee for the out–of–power party is a different subject — not entirely removed from the topics of presidential approval and satisfaction with the direction of the country but not unrelated, either. It's just that there are other factors to consider — and, while Trump's campaign has been defying political wisdom, it is important to remember that no one has voted yet. Republicans won't officially begin the process of choosing their nominee until after the holidays.
We're still nearly 10 months from Election Day, and that is an eternity in politics. Much can happen, and those numbers could turn around. The window won't stay open indefinitely.
Realistically, voter attitudes tend to harden by the May before an election, so there isn't as much time as Democrats probably would like to think.