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Why Obama vs. Trump Is Such A Blowout

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Americans, by a wide margin (56 percent to 37 percent), think Barack Obama was a better president than Donald Trump has been, according to a CNN poll of adults released this week. Americans think Hillary Clinton would have been a better president than Trump has been, but by a much smaller margin (47 percent to 44 percent).

These numbers aren’t that surprising, but they are weird.

First, Clinton and Obama have very similar public policy views. They’re both Democrats, of course, but more than that, they’re the same type of Democrat: left of center but not super liberal.

Maybe Americans think Obama was particularly good as president at, say, giving eulogies, in a way Clinton would not have been. And, sure, at earlier stages in their careers, Clinton and Obama had different views on issues, most notably the Iraq War. But by the end of the 2016 campaign, they were basically aligned on everything. The gap between Obama-Trump (19 percentage points) and Clinton-Trump (3 percentage points) is really large, and I’m not sure it’s based on policy differences.

Second, Obama’s 19-point advantage over Trump is huge. Obama is not some hypothetical figure: He ran for president twice, and 46 percent (2008) and then 47 percent (2012) of the country voted for the other candidate. Trump is not John McCain or Mitt Romney, you might say, and that’s fair. But count me skeptical that an actual Obama-Trump head-to-head race would have produced such a blowout. My bet is that strong support from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would have gotten Trump into at least the low 40s in such a contest. And, yes, I get that the poll asked who would be a better president, not who people would vote for. But the Clinton-Trump numbers seem much closer to how Americans actually act on their political preferences: On Election Day in 2016, the former secretary of state won 48 percent of the vote nationally, compared with Trump’s 46 percent. That roughly parallels who Americans think would be the better president.

What gives?

For one, U.S. presidents are generally more popular after they leave office. Obama is following that trend. Clinton never made it to the Oval Office, obviously, but Americans don’t seem to be warming to her now that she’s off the partisan battlefield (as happened at earlier points in her career): Gallup found her favorable rating at an all-time low in December of last year.

It’s also plausible that Obama, to poll respondents, is basically “not Trump,” while Clinton is still Clinton, the person lots of Americans remember very recently voting against. The Obama-Trump numbers roughly parallel Trump’s approval ratings — 42 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove. This is a pattern that shows up on a variety of questions from a variety of pollsters: A majority of the public takes the anti-Trump position, while 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans, including the majority of Republicans, align with the president.1

Third, issue positions don’t explain American voter behavior particularly well, so it makes sense that voters imagine that they would like Obama’s policy decisions more than Clinton’s, even if they would largely be the same decisions. Remember that a bloc of Obama voters in 2012 backed Trump in 2016 (about 9 percent, according to one estimate) even though Clinton shared Obama’s policy views more than Trump did. (The 5 percent of Romney voters who backed Clinton makes slightly more sense, as Romney himself said in 2016 that he would not vote for Trump.)

It’s also worth asking whether Obama is viewed more favorably than Clinton in part because of his gender. Research has found that sexism played a significant role in the 2016 election, the U.S. has never elected a female president, and many sectors of American society, including politics, remain disproportionately male. (Of course, race also played a significant role in 2016, many of these sectors are also disproportionately white, and Obama is the only non-white person ever elected president.)

Finally, we’ll give Obama some credit, particularly as he might be smarting from Trump’s reversal of one of his major policy achievements this week (more on that in a bit). Clinton was under investigation by the Justice Department during her campaign. Some of Trump’s closest allies (and perhaps the president himself) are now. If you are judging your presidents or would-be presidents in terms of staying away from major legal controversies, Obama is far ahead of Clinton and Trump.

Other polling nuggets

  • Before Trump announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from a nuclear agreement with five other world powers and Iran, 21 percent of American adults said the U.S. should stay in the agreement, 21 percent said the U.S. should leave it, and 57 percent of Americans said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion, according to a CBS News poll. (So at least 57 percent of Americans are honest.)
  • Republican Rick Scott, currently Florida’s governor, has a 44 percent to 40 percent lead over incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, in Florida’s Senate race, according to a new poll conducted by the Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics Polling Initiative.
  • The race to replace Scott as governor, meanwhile, is still fluid, according to the poll. In the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Ron Desantis (16 percent) and Florida agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam (15 percent) are effectively tied for first in the multi-candidate field, but 43 percent of voters are not sure who they will support. In the Democratic primary, former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine (16 percent) is basically tied with ex-congresswoman Gwen Graham (15 percent) at the top of the field, but 42 percent of voters are undecided. The Florida primaries are August 28.
  • The top issues Republicans want 2018 candidates to talk about are the economy and jobs (24 percent), immigration (22 percent) and gun policy (19 percent), according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Democrats rank health care first (30 percent), then gun policy (28 percent), then the economy and jobs (23 percent.)
  • Opinion is split among Americans about whether other world leaders show Trump “a great deal of respect” (13 percent), a “fair amount” (27 percent), “not much” (31 percent) or “no respect” (29 percent), according to an Economist/YouGov poll. Ten percent feel Trump shows a great deal of respect to other world leaders, 31 percent said a fair amount, 32 percent say not much, and 27 percent said the American president shows no respect to other nations’ leaders.2

Trump’s approval rating

Trump’s job approval rating is 42 percent; his disapproval rating is 52 percent. Trump’s net rating (-10 percentage points) is better than this time last month, when it was -13 (40.6 approval, 53.3 disapproval). So he is still quite unpopular, but slightly less so.

The generic ballot

The Democrats hold a 46.7 percent to 40.5 percent advantage on the generic congressional ballot this week. This time last month, the Democrats led by almost 7 percentage points.


  1. For example, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 54 percent of respondents said they felt former FBI Director James Comey was more likely to tell the truth on major issues than Trump is, while 35 percent sided with the president.

  2. Notice how the pro-Trump answers total around 40 percent, the anti-Trump above 50. As noted above, lots of polling questions basically result in Americans telling you if they like Trump or not.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.