Gallup suspended its daily tracking poll after Hurricane Sandy slammed the East coast, but the pollster published one last set of results yesterday, wrapping up the 2012 campaign season. Gallup found President Obama with a three-point lead among registered voters, and Mitt Romney with a one-point lead among likely voters.
But also of interest was the president's approval rating: Gallup found that a 52% majority now approve of how Obama is doing his job. The final Washington Post/ABC News poll showed a similar result, with Obama scoring a 51% approval rating, tied for its highest point since the president ordered the strike on Osama bin Laden.
And why does this matter? Because there's no modern precedent for Americans defeating an incumbent president with an approval rating this high. Nearly two years ago, Nate Silver did some analysis in this area and made some observations that seem especially noteworthy now.
At first glance, the relationship seems nearly perfect: every incumbent with an approval rating of 49 percent or higher won re-election, while every candidate with a rating of 48 percent or lower lost.
George H.W. Bush, the last incumbent to lose a re-election bid, had an approval rating below 40% on Election Day. The last Gallup poll in the fall of 1980 showed Jimmy Carter's rating at 37%.
Silver concluded way back in January 2011, "What we can say is important is the range in which Mr. Obama's approval ratings have been varying in recent months: between about 45 and about 50 percent. If Mr. Obama's approval rating is at the top of that range, 50 percent, on Nov. 6, 2012 — about where it is now — the model figures that his chances of winning re-election will be greater than 80 percent. But if his approval rating is at the bottom of the range instead, at 45 percent, his chances for a second term will be only about one in three, and he'll have to hope that the Republican nominee is a weak one."
All of the recent nationwide polling puts Obama's rating between 49% and 52%. That doesn't make him a lock for re-election, but if he comes up short, he'll be the most popular president to lose since the dawn of modern polling.