In July 2007, as candidates on both sides of the political aisle jockeyed for position in the forthcoming open-seat presidential election, the Republican Party was facing an election environment headlined by a president from their party with a 29% job approval rating. Today, 16 months before the 2016 open-seat presidential election, President Barack Obama has a 46% job approval rating. The immediate thought could be that, at this juncture in the summer before an election, Republicans have somewhat less of an opening to run on the basis of attacking the incumbent president than Democrats did as they made their plans in the summer of 2007.
But Obama's relative strength, compared with Bush, is somewhat mitigated by the fact that overall satisfaction with the way things are going in the country was actually the same in the summer of 2007 as it is now -- at the 26% to 28% level. So, using that as a gauge, there would be as much of an opportunity now to run against the status quo as there appeared to be in 2007.
There is more history to help guide us. If we go back to the previous president who was elected and served two full terms, we find Bill Clinton with impressive approval ratings in July 1999 of between 58% and 64%, significantly higher than Obama today and double the approval rating of Bush in 2007. We didn't measure satisfaction with the way things are going in July 1999, but in June of that year it was 55% and in August 62%, more than double where it is today. So the campaign environment for an open seat in the year before the election in the administrations of last three full-term presidents would clearly have appeared most propitious for the incumbent president's party in 1999, less propitious now, and least propitious of all in 2007.
Ronald Reagan had a 49% approval rating in July 1987, just a little higher than where Obama is today. And before that? In a reflection of the fascinating history of the presidency in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, we have to go back to 1959 to find a president previous to Reagan who was elected twice and served out his full terms. (The '60s and '70s included the one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter, the abbreviated partial-term presidency of Gerald Ford, the aborted presidency of Richard Nixon who had to resign in his sixth year, the five-year-and-two-month presidency of Lyndon Johnson and the 1,000 days of the presidency of John F. Kennedy.)
That takes us to the presidency of Texas-born Dwight Eisenhower, who in the summer of 1959 was enjoying an approval rating of 61%, about on par with where Clinton was in the summer of his seventh year. We would thus be excused for thinking that the projected best chances for a political party to hold onto the White House would have appeared to have been in 1959 and 1999.
Well, the high approval ratings in the year before the election enjoyed by Eisenhower and Clinton didn't do their party any good in terms of retaining the White House in the end. Both of these presidents' vice presidents (Richard Nixon and Al Gore) ran for the presidency in a bid to succeed their bosses, and both of these veeps-turned-candidates eventually lost in very close elections (although Clinton's vice president got more of the popular vote than did his opponent).
Reagan's vice president (George H.W. Bush) also ran to succeed the president, and even though Reagan had lower approval ratings than either Eisenhower or Clinton, his vice president's bid was successful, making 1988 the only one of the four election years following full terms in which the party of the president held onto the office.
All of this tells us that the political environment in the summer before an election is not a highly predictive barometer of what is going to happen in the following year's election.
For one thing, to paraphrase Cole Porter, times can change. This was most evident in 2007 to 2008, when by the fall of 2008 it was clear the U.S. had a rapidly-developing economic crisis on its hands. Satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. fell from 27% in July 2007 to a 7% reading in October 2008, still the lowest in Gallup's history of this measure. And combined mentions of the economy as the nation's most important problem rose from a small 16% in July of 2007 to 69% in October 2008, swamping concerns about the Iraq war. Bush's job approval was down to about 25% in October 2008. It's not that the GOP looked like it was in a great spot in 2007 anyway, but by 2008 the times had turned perilous indeed, providing a very challenging environment for the GOP standard-bearer John McCain.
Of course, in addition to the potential for unexpected changes in the economy and world affairs between now and next fall, there are things to consider like the personalities, characteristics and strength of campaigning of the eventual nominees, which will have a major impact regardless of the "structure" or environment in which an election will play out. And the impact of those factors will become evident only as time moves forward in the 16 months to come.