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Bush and the "Lovable Loser" Effect

December 8, 2008

While George W. Bush's ham-handed legacy project got off to a bumpy start last week, the lamest of lame duck presidents got some good news from Gallup. In an analysis published Wednesday, Gallup revealed that lame duck presidents usually see their approval ratings rise in the weeks between their successor's election and inauguration. Noting that the President has experienced a small bump in his approval ratings since Election Day, the Los Angeles Times led the way in proclaiming, "Americans start re-liking George W. Bush." Sadly for Bush, it's too early to conclude that he will be the beneficiary of the "Lovable Loser" effect.
As Gallup's Jeffrey Jones wrote, outgoing occupants of the White House tend to be viewed more positively as they exit the stage. For two-termers like Reagan (+12) and Clinton (+9), the favorability boost can be seen as an "off into the sunset" bonus, while rejected incumbents like Bush 41, Ford or Johnson reaped the "lovable loser" effect from Americans perhaps mustering some sympathy for the vanquished as the burden of governance shift to their successor:

"Of the eight post-World War II presidents who left office after serving two terms, declining to seek an additional term, or being defeated for re-election, six saw increased job approval ratings in their final two-plus months in office.
The last three presidents, and four of the last five who departed at the end of a term, saw significant rises in their ratings. Some of these increases were evident beginning with the first poll conducted after the election.''

While the Gallup data led the Chicago Tribune to ask, "Bush's lame duck approval - rising?" the Los Angeles Times was quick to conclude that the resurrection of Bush's irreparably tarnished reputation already be underway. Noting that Bush's father enjoyed a whopping 22% leap in popularity between his November 1992 loss and Bill Clinton's inauguration, the LA Times Andrew Malcolm posited that Dubya's numbers will "probably go higher before he stands in the cold in front of the Capitol late on the morning of Jan. 20 and watches someone else take over the burdens of office."
That remains to be seen. As Malcolm himself acknowledged, Bush's recent uptick from his record-setting unpopularity of 24% to 28% last week is "still not that great." Gallup's own daily tracking poll showed that Bush's approval numbers essentially flat-lined between 26% and 29% since Election Day a month ago. (A week before the election, Bush reached the 31% mark; exactly a year ago, he briefly enjoyed a 37% rating.) And as the Gallup long term trend shows, from a popularity perspective, George W. Bush long ago entered a persistent vegetative state.
Other surveys offer Bush little more grounds for optimism. The Real Clear Politics 26% average of Bush's job approval has moved little in recent months. While surveys including USA Today and Diageo/Hotline showed minor gains for Bush just after the election, CNN showed a 9% decline. The Polling Report summary revealed similarly dismal - and largely stagnant - numbers for President Bush.
Still, Bush may yet experience upward movement in the polls as he and wife Laura head-off to their new home in a formerly whites-only neighborhood of Dallas. After all, while Americans love a winner, they often express a type of sad fondness for record-setting losers and the comically inept. The 1958 Ford Edsel, the winless 1976 Tampa Buccaneers, and William Hung, for example, all enjoy a special place in American lore. So if Bush's numbers do creep up to say 35%, he may go from being slightly less popular than the Ebola Virus to being viewed on a par with a colonoscopy.
But he'll still be a loser. And not a very lovable one at that.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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