The most unpopular presidential election winner ever could win again in 2020

Donald Trump is the first president to ever be elected while being actively disliked by the majority of Americans. Trump was also the first person elected president who was significantly less popular than his counterpart.

Most Americans have heard of presidents losing the popular vote but winning the election. But to win while the majority of Americans oppose you? How is that possible?

At the time of the election, Trump had the highest unfavorability rating in history, with over 61% of Americans having an “unfavorable” view or “disapproving” of Trump. (There’s also an “undecided” option.)

Luckily for Trump, he faced a historically unpopular opponent. Before 2016, no losing presidential candidate had had an unfavorable rating above 47%. But on election eve, Hillary Clinton’s was 52%, an unprecedented election in American history.

Pretty soon, Americans will start to hear nothing but polls, predictions and political forecasts in the news cycle for the 2020 elections. But, as a statistician and political polling expert, we think that there is one polling prediction device that will be overlooked and misunderstood: approval ratings.

Winning without the popular vote

History has been rather kind to presidents who didn’t win the popular vote. Trump is the fifth U.S. president to lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College.

All presidents have experienced a bump in popularity between election and Inauguration Day. But only Trump still found his approval rating – the percent of Americans who approve of the way the president is handling his job – below 50% upon entering office.

According to FiveThirtyEight, the day Trump stepped into the White House, he had only a 45.5% approval rating. This stands in stark contrast to Barack Obama, for example, who took office with a 68% approval rating.

Moreover, Trump has the lowest approval average in history, at only 40%. The next lowest is Harry Truman at 45.4%.

These data clearly show that Trump is the least-liked president in American history. With such unpopularity, how could he possibly win again?

Approval ratings and reelection

While election forecasting has become increasingly complex with new prediction models and techniques, there is an unsung hero of polling predictions: the approval ratings.

Introduced by George Gallup in the late 1920s, presidential approval ratings aimed to gauge the level of public support for the sitting president at any given time during his presidency.

Every single reelected president since approval rating polls began has had over a 50% approval rating when reelected, or been on an upward approval rating trend over 30 days before the election. If neither of those is satisfied, the incumbent loses.

It has been that simple.