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Will Obama drag down the Democratic ticket in 2016?

- June 16, 2014

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A reporter inquires:

Doing some probing into the “Does the Obama White House’s record really matter for a Hillary 2016 run” question, and thought you might know of some good research out there that documents how an outgoing incumbent affects his aspiring successor.

Here’s what I said in response. First, the popularity of an incumbent president does influence his aspiring successor’s chances of winning.  To be sure, the incumbent’s popularity is a more important factor if the incumbent is actually running for reelection, but it still matters if he is stepping down too.
Imagine a simple model in which 1948-2012 presidential elections depend only on presidential approval, and then let the impact of approval depend on whether an incumbent president is running.  (Here, I define Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Gerald R. Ford in 1976 as incumbents, even though they were not elected directly to the presidency.)  The effect of presidential approval is about twice as large when the incumbent is actually running, compared to when the incumbent isn’t running, as will be the case in 2016.  With Obama’s approval at about 45 percent, this simple model suggests that Democrats would have about a 41 percent chance of winning in 2016.
Second, the political scientist Alan Abramowitz has identified a factor he calls “time for a change.”  He finds that in post-WWII presidential elections, the incumbent party tends to do worse after it’s been in office for two terms.  In other words, after eight years with one party in the White House, some voters seem to think that it’s “time for a change.”  Now, since there haven’t been a large number of presidential elections in this era, one can always ask whether this tendency is really robust.  But if the tendency is real — and I tend to give it some credence (see also Brendan Nyhan) — then this is one legacy that Obama is passing down to a successor.
Unpacking what exactly creates the feeling of  “time for a change” is tricky.  Some attribute it to the sheer accumulation of trials and tribulations that an incumbent president will eventually endure, such as scandals and the like.  But there’s not, to my knowledge, an ironclad answer in the research.
Third, political science research also shows that public opinion tends to turn against the president’s party in terms of ideology, especially feelings about the size of government.  So the public tends to become more liberal under Republican presidents and more conservative under Democratic presidents.  The research further shows that public opinion on this dimension is related to presidential election outcomes — the more liberal is public opinion, the better Democratic presidential candidates do.
What does this mean for 2016? Under Obama, opinion on this dimension appears to have taken a decisive conservative turn.  This could translate into additional difficulties for Democrats in 2016.
Of course, many caveats apply here.  One is that we don’t know what Obama’s approval numbers will look like two years from now.  Another is that we don’t know who the candidates will be.  But, taken together, Obama’s tenure in the White House is likely to have important consequences for the Democratic nominee in 2016.