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Trump's re-election is approaching the danger zone, polls show

Analysis: The president's approval rating and standing versus Biden have taken a tumble.
Image: President Trump Holds Roundtable Discussion At White House
President Donald Trump speaks during a round table discussion with African American supporters in the Cabinet Room of the White House on June 10, 2020.Doug Mills / Pool via Getty Images

The election is less than five months away and the president's job approval rating is falling, down now to 42 percent in the Real Clear Politics average, as low as it's been since last year. And matched against Joe Biden, he trails by an average of 8 points.

By any measure, Donald Trump is in a perilous position.

Of course, Trump is no stranger to political crisis, and he did famously win the 2016 election in the face of it. So exactly how much trouble is he in right now?

One way of tackling this question is to compare Trump's standing to where his predecessors were at this same point in their re-election campaigns. Looking back at the past 40 years, three categories emerge:

Image: Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan points to a reporter during a brief news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington in Dec. 8, 1984.AP file

1. Coasting: Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996

Reagan sought re-election with the early '80s recession giving way to a vibrant recovery, and his approval rating steadily rose in 1984, reaching 55 percent in early June. At this point, he was running comfortably ahead of Democrat Walter Mondale and his position would only strengthen in the months ahead, with Reagan ultimately posting a 49-state landslide.

Similarly, Clinton's Gallup approval rating in early June ’96 stood at 58 percent and he enjoyed a solid lead over Republican Bob Dole, one he wouldn't relinquish for the remainder of the race. Though not on the scale of '84, the election was lopsided with Clinton winning 379 electoral votes.

Image: Obama
President Barack Obama arrives on stage with his daughter Sasha and wife Michelle to deliver his acceptance speech on Nov. 7, 2012 in Chicago.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

2. Holding their own: George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2012

Bush’s approval average sat at 47 percent this same week in 2004 — low enough to put him in danger of losing to John Kerry but high enough that the race was essentially tied in polling.

With the country deeply divided over the Iraq war, the campaign promised to be close, and it was. The early September Republican convention, which was heavy on reminders of Bush's post-9/11 leadership and attacks on Kerry, boosted the president's approval rating a few critical points and he won a narrow November victory.

Likewise, Obama's approval average was 48 percent at this same point in 2012, and it wouldn't budge much through Election Day. A successful convention and persistent attacks on Republican Mitt Romney helped Obama prevail with 51 percent of the vote.

3. In deep trouble: Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992

A profound rally-around-the-flag effect following the siege of the American embassy in Tehran had lifted Carter to new heights of popularity. But by this point in 1980, his numbers were falling fast.

With the hostage crisis dragging on and double-digit inflation strangling the economy, Carter fell to a 38 percent approval rating in June of '80, falling behind Republican Ronald Reagan. Carter's slide would only continue, with his approval falling into the low 30s in months ahead. On Election Day, he would carry just six states.

At this point in '92, Bush was also watching his numbers drop, down to just 37 percent in an early June Gallup poll, a steep decline from his post-Gulf War high of nearly 90 percent the year before. The slumping economy was catching up with him, and his numbers would fall even further over the summer.

Bush hoped public unease with Democrat Bill Clinton would give him a chance to hang on, but Clinton pulled ahead after the July Democratic convention and never looked back. In a three-way race, Bush wound up winning just 38 percent of the vote — the worst for an incumbent in 80 years.


Where does Trump belong on this list?

Clearly, he's not in the first "cruising" category. And his current average approval rating of 42 percent is about 5 points too low to put him in the second "holding his own" one. Moreover, Trump's approval rating has only rarely reached the high 40s, where both Bush in '04 and Obama '12 were throughout their re-election campaigns.

If there's anything for Trump to take solace in here, it's that his numbers are not quite as bad as Carter's in '80 and Bush’s in '92, at least not yet. But they're getting close.