This Is Not What a Change Election Looks Like

When she launched her presidential election, Hillary Clinton had an important decision to make. Would 2016 be a “change election?” Or would voters be more interested in building on the successes of the Obama presidency? Given that the two had been pretty bitter rivals in 2008, it wasn’t clear which direction Clinton would go. Obviously she placed her bet on the latter.

Initially, as the campaigns of Trump and Sanders took off, a lot of people wondered if she had made the right choice. The meme that this was the year of the angry voter was ubiquitous. But in the Democratic primary, Clinton built a firewall with women and people of color who validated her decision. As Matt Yglesias wrote, they were the “silent majority” who were often drowned out in the media by the voices of rage.

As Steve Benen wrote today, the people who were convinced that 2016 was going to be a “change election” often pointed to polling numbers on the question of whether this country is on the right track or the wrong track. The problem with that question is that the “wrong track” number rose precipitously during the George W. Bush presidency and has dropped only slightly during the Obama years. It is impossible to fold that into any real common thread of exactly what voters are saying.

CNN asks this question a bit differently and found an interesting result in their latest numbers.

More Americans than at any time in Barack Obama’s presidency now say that things in the United States are going well, a sharp uptick in positive views and the best reviews of the country’s trajectory since January 2007, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll.

Overall, 54% say things in the country today are going well, 46% badly. That’s a reversal from late July when 54% said things were going poorly and 46% said they were positive.

What grabbed my attention about those results isn’t just that a majority of Americans think things are going well. It’s also the big flip since July. What has changed in the last 3 months? Here’s the kicker:

The improvement in impressions of the country’s path stems largely from shifts among Democrats and independents. Among Democrats, 85% say things are going well, up from 76% in late July. Among independents, 51% now say things are going well, up 9 points since this summer. There’s been no significant shift, however, among Republicans: 21% now say things are going well, not significantly different from the 17% who said so in July.

I’ll simply note that the July poll was done immediately following the conclusion of the two partys’ conventions. Since then, more Democrats and Independents have decided that things are going well, while Republicans remain in a funk. Those numbers mirror Obama’s rising approval numbers.

The new poll also finds Obama’s approval rating holding at 55%, matching the high-point for the President’s second term reached earlier in October. Voters behind Trump and Clinton are sharply polarized in their reviews of Obama’s handling of the presidency, with 93% of Clinton’s supporters saying they approve of Obama while 91% of Trump’s backers disapprove…

Obama’s approval rating now outpaces Ronald Reagan’s 51% approval rating at this time in 1988 and is nearly on par with Bill Clinton’s 57% mark in October 2000. The positive reviews for Obama and the direction the country’s heading suggest a positive electoral environment for Democrats heading in to the elections next month.

All of that validates the decision Hillary Clinton made at the beginning of this election – although none of it was obvious at the time. What is even more interesting is that a candidate who has talked about building on the successes of her predecessor could very well win in a landslide. That might be yet another way this election is breaking all the molds.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.