Least popular candidate ever elected President?

Right now, Hillary Clinton has a disapproval rating of 52%, meaning that most Americans actively dislike her. Would it be unprecedented for someone so unpopular nine months from election day to win the Presidency? I assume so, but I’m not sure.

I can easily find data online about historic approval ratings for *incumbent *Presidents, and nobody has ever been re-elected with a disapproval rating that high. Given the advantages of incumbency, I would assume no non-incumbent has ever pulled off the trick, either, but I can’t find the data. Anyone know?

Presidential job approval ratings only go back to the 1930’s. I don’t know about “approval ratings” for presidential candidates, but they wouldn’t be quite the same thing anyway, since you can’t ask “Do you approve or disapprove of the way _______ is handling his job as President?” of someone who isn’t (yet) President.

I suspect, though, that Abraham Lincoln (in 1860) is a strong candidate for what you’re asking about. He received less than 40% of the popular vote, and was of course violently disliked in the South.

George W. Bush and Rutherford B. Hayes both lost the popular vote.

I’m talking about this sort of polls, which I guess are properly called “favorability ratings”, where the question asked is “Do you have a generally favorable or unfavorable opinion of X?”. I know they have been asking these questions for at least several election cycles.

Followup question: It is my impression that these sort of ratings tend to be fairly inelastic and don’t change much over time, except insofar as voters find out more about the candidate and move from the “undecided” ranks into one camp or the other. Anyone know how true this is?

Harry Truman’s approval rating was 36% in the spring of 1948, and that was before the Democratic party split three ways.

Bill Clinton had a 40% disapproval rating in June 1992. At that point, Ross Perot’s ratings were at their highest. As the summer wore on, both Perot’s and GHWB’s ratings dropped considerably.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush actually had poorer popularity ratings than Michael Dukakis up until August.

Lincoln at least got the plurality. John Quincy Adams only received 30.9% of the popular vote in 1824. He came in second in a four way election which sent the decision to Congress where he was chosen over popular vote winner Andrew Jackson.

Sometimes the issues change.

In the 1940 election, Franklin Roosevelt was running for his third term. One of the biggest issues in the election was the war in Europe. Roosevelt favored giving support to Britain and France. Many Americans preferred isolationism and didn’t want to support either side. The main Republican candidates - Taft, Vandenberg, and Dewey - were all isolationists.

Then in the summer of 1940, Germany shocked the world by conquering France in a matter of weeks. Britain looked like it might fall next and the American people suddenly saw Germany as a serious threat. Support for the isolationists dropped. Willkie, who had been an interventionist, got the Republican nomination but still lost to Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s established record as an interventionist had become an asset instead of a liability.

It wasn’t that any of the candidates involved changed their position. They all pretty much held to their original positions. It was the public opinion about those positions which changed dramatically.

He was; but I have a source to how just how, in terms of popularity, Lincoln stood with the electorate in general.:
Lincoln, Abraham—and popularity as president. Sometimes a myth will arise as the result of overly enthusiastic attempts at debunking. One such is the statement sometimes made that Lincoln was not really a popular president. But in fact he was. Certainly he had enemies; a wartime president can scarcely hope to be free from attacks arising out of the public frustrations and despair which are a part of wartime. And the opposition press in Lincoln’s day, an era of journalistic vituperation scarcely equaled before or since, was sometimes so extraordinarily vicious in its comments that it is not always easy to remember they reflected only the opinions of editors, not the public. It should also be remembered that Horace Greeley, the most influential journalist in Lincoln’s time, was responsible for many of the attacks on Lincoln—possibly because Greeley had backed another candidate, Seward, for the 1860 nomination, possibly because Greeley apparently had the kind of temperament that seizes upon causes rather than issues. (A blistering attack on Lincoln written by Greeley was scheduled for appearance when the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached the New York Tribune, Greeley’s paper. It was killed in Greeley’s absence by the managing editor, who explained to Greeley that the *Tribune * would have been wrecked by a mob if the editorial had been run—and that the *Tribune * would have deserved it.)

Lincoln, was not, it is true, elected by a “majority”; his share of the popular vote was 39 percent. But he was running against not one, but three other candidates. [His name was not even on the ballot in the states that eventually seceded. –d.m.] And, in fact, Lincoln’s margin over Douglas, his leading opponent, was more than 500,000. When he was reelected in 1864, his lead over McClellan was about the same—some half a million. The population of those states which did not secede was about 22 million during Lincoln’s tenure. Lincoln’s popular majority in 1864, thus, represents a margin equivalent to about 4.5 million today [1975]. Whether or not the term “landslide,” applied by some historians, is applicable, it is nonetheless true that Lincoln’s victory over McClellan in 1864 was greater in equivalent terms than Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s over Thomas E. Dewey in 1944. And this time Lincoln captured over 55 percent of the popular vote.

When Lincoln was assassinated, even those newspapers that had been the most bitter in their comments while he lived poured forth a torrent of adulation. In the words of Robert S. Harper (Lincoln and the Press, 1951) “It was no longer possible to determine the politics of a newspaper by what it said about Lincoln.” Enemies Lincoln certainly had; no public figure can hope to escape them. But by the only standard that determines popularity on a statistical basis rather than a historian’s opinion—the election returns—Lincoln was indeed a popular president.
From The Dictionary of Misinformation by Tom Burnam, 1975, pp.141-142. (Bolding and bracketing mine)

(1) I’m not sure how you get from “unfavorable view” to “actively dislike.” I’ve an unfavorable view of all the GOP contenders but actively dislike less than half of them.

(2) At least a quarter of the American electorate will have an unfavorable view of anyone with a “(D)” after their name. (I wish pollsters would make it easy to see the exact question asked. Perhaps Sanders gets fewer dispprovals because interviewees are not informed about the “(D)”.)

(3) Obama’s disapproval rating was 44% immediately after the 2008 election and exceeded 50% throughout most of his Presidency. Thing Fish, have you noticed that American politics are now very polarized?

Polarization? Isn’t that what a campaign is all about? (Ad hominem attacks and all that.)

I think polls like that are worthless since they (a) are very subjective (b) the ones with the most “interesting” results are cherry-picked by the media and © this exact same discussion comes up every single election. Remember 1992?

  1. They seem like fairly synonymous terms to me. I’m assuming it roughly translates to “I don’t want to vote for that person (but might do so anyway, if the other candidate is even worse)”.

  2. That is an excellent point.

  3. Wrong. His disapproval rating at the time of his first inauguration was 13%. It has been above 50% since fall of 2013, but only got that high during his first term for a few weeks in 2011. It was 43% at the time of his re-election.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between having* negative* approval ratings, which means that more people dislike you than like you, and actually having over 50% disapproval. The latter is harder to do, since there are always around 5-10% in the “no opinion” column.