Photo credit: Jacob Boetter

Photo credit: Jacob Boetter

So today Gallup has decided to point out that Obama has the second-lowest approval rating (after Jimmy Carter) in the oh-so-critical make-or-break “November of his third year in office” of any elected president since World War II, which certainly doesn’t sound arbitrary at all.

They go on to observe that presidents with approval ratings under 50% on Election Day don’t generally get re-elected, with the implication that Obama’s 43% approval rating does not bode well for his chances if it doesn’t improve before then.  And intuitively, that makes sense: If more than half of the population doesn’t like the incumbent, they’re not going to get a majority of the vote, right?

But here’s the thing: No president runs for election in a vacuum, or against “Generic Democrat” or “Generic Republican.”  Carter and Bush I weren’t just unpopular, they also had to run against skilled and charismatic politicians in Reagan and Clinton (plus a strong third-party candidate in Poppy’s case).  Bush II, on the other hand, got to put his 48% approval rating up against John Kerry, who was an uninspiring stiff and still almost won.

The incumbent doesn’t have to have a 50+ approval rating, just a majority of voters who prefer him to the alternative. The lower the approval rating, the worse the alternative has to be for the incumbent to still be preferable, but it’s not impossible.

Keep that in mind when trying to predict the outcome next year.  Obama is very unpopular, and deservedly so, but consider the alternatives.  He will be facing either Mitt Romney, who is like a Republican Kerry with less love from his base, or a right-wing caricature like Gingrich or Perry or Bachmann.  Not only that, but Obama is a better campaigner than any of the Republicans – although it will be interesting to see how well his inspiring rhetoric works the second time around after everyone’s seen how hollow it is.

If Romney doesn’t say or do anything epically tone-deaf at an inopportune moment, and if the GOP base holds their noses and turns out, I can see a majority of voters choosing him over Obama.  But I think Obama would have to be at least 10-15 points lower than he is now (which could well happen) before a majority of voters would consider any of the far-right clowns to be a definite improvement.

There’s an old joke about two hikers who are ambushed by a bear.  One of them quickly swaps his boots for sneakers, explaining to the other, “I don’t have to outrun the bear.  I just have to outrun you.”  Obama doesn’t have to outrun the bear.  He just has to outrun Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.