Rahm’s Fuzzy Math

by John Fund
The Wall Street Journal
December 21, 2009

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is assuring Congressional Democrats they can rebound in the 2010 elections once they pass health care reform.

He cites his own experience as a young White House aide for President Clinton in the early 1990s, when Mr. Clinton supposedly was able to reverse the slide in his approval ratings after he passed the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement. Mr. Emanuel says health care will perform the same trick now. Presidential approval numbers play a key role in how well a party that controls the White House fares in mid-term elections. When a president’s approval rating falls below 50%, his party historically loses an average of 41 House seats — which would put Democratic control of the House in jeopardy in 2010.

In the Real Clear Politics average of all current polls, Mr. Obama’s current approval rating is 49%, but Mr. Emanuel argues that the Nafta precedent proves those numbers will rebound once the public sees President Obama delivering on health care reform.

The problem with Mr. Emanuel’s happy talk is that it isn’t borne out by the facts. Gallup Poll ratings pegged Mr. Clinton’s support at 50% approval and 43% disapproval in the final survey taken before NAFTA passed in November 1993. Mr. Clinton did see his numbers tick up slightly, reaching 54% in January. By June, however, his approval rating had fallen to 46% and stayed in that range until the 1994 elections. The last pre-election poll had his approval rating at 46% — still below where he was before NAFTA passed. How did Democrats do that year? It was an historic wipeout, with Democrats losing ten seats in the Senate and 52 seats in the House.

Nervous Democratic incumbents would do well to check any numbers Mr. Emanuel gives them. After all, their jobs are more in jeopardy than his — at least for now.

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