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Will Obama's rising approval rating give Democrats an edge in November?

President Obama slams Trump and Cruz on immig... 02:08

How much influence does an incumbent outgoing president's popularity have in the outcome of the next presidential election? Or in other words, does a popular president make it more likely that his party's candidate will effectively win a third term?

Presidential approval does seem to be one factor. Two others are the country's economic outlook and the slate of candidates running.

At the end of March, President Obama's average weekly approval rating measured by Gallup reached 53 percent, his highest level since 2013. The lowest weekly average of his presidency was 40 percent, recorded in the week of the 2014 midterm elections.

Based on the results of past presidential elections and the popularity of other two-term presidents, some analysts think that if Mr. Obama's approval remains steady, it could bode well for the Democratic presidential nominee and for Democrats running for Congress.

"There is a correlation between presidential approval and success for the president's party in elections," Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, told CBS News.

President George H.W. Bush, for example, benefited from President Ronald Reagan's popularity in 1988. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans -- about 55 percent of the public -- approved of Reagan's job in his second term. It cannot be denied that Bush's victory was also tied to a very weak Democratic opponent in Michael Dukakis.

In 2008, John McCain still lost his election after George W. Bush's approval reached a low of 28 percent that year.

Still, strong approval ratings don't always help. Going back several decades, President Eisenhower had a nearly 61 percent average approval rating in his second term, according to Gallup, but that couldn't help Richard Nixon, his vice president, win the 1960 presidential election.

Elections, Lichtman says, are generally referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House. Voters decide whether that party's performance has been good enough for another four years, and presidential approval can be a reflection of that, but not necessarily a perfect one.

H.W. Brands, a presidential historian who has written a slew of biographies including on Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, told CBS News that a high approval rating can reflect different factors. It may capture the level of consumer confidence in the economy, which would carry a lot of weight in the upcoming election -- or it could merely reflect the personal popularity of the sitting president, which may be of little help to his party's candidate.

"When a rising approval rating for a lame duck president reflects general confidence in the state of the nation, the president's party often benefits. George H.W. Bush rode to the presidency on the confidence engendered by Reagan's presidency," Brands said. "But when the approval rating reflects mere good feeling for the retiring individual, there is little incumbent-party bounce. Americans liked Ike to the end, but they chose Kennedy over Nixon," Brand said.

The 2000 election is trickier to dissect. President Bill Clinton left the White House with an average second term approval rating of 61 percent, according to Gallup. George W. Bush, however, won the election after the Supreme Court decision that resulted in his Electoral College victory. Al Gore did win the popular vote, but many analysts argued that, given Clinton's high approval rating, Gore should have won the election handily. If anything, that election showed that presidential approval alone is not a determining factor.

Obama's climbing approval rating might not necessarily be a byproduct of his second-term policies like the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal or the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba. His rating, experts say, might be a reflection of the improving economy and it also might be the result of the fact that many Americans view him in a more favorable light compared to the two leading Republican presidential candidates: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

A CBS/New York Times survey from last month found that 48 percent of people in the U.S. approve of Mr. Obama's job as president and 44 percent said they disapprove. A plurality said they disapprove of his handling of foreign policy while half of the public said they approve of the way he's handling the economy.

Despite the rise in his approval rating, the country remains deeply divided over what they want out of his successor and whether or not Americans want the next president to continue Mr. Obama's policies or pursue more liberal or conservative policies.

Yet unlike the 2014 midterms when Democrats were afraid to associate themselves with Mr. Obama, Hillary Clinton and other candidates in this cycle are embracing him.

"I don't think President Obama gets the credit he deserves for digging us out of the ditch the Republicans dropped us in the first place," Clinton said at a recent campaign event in Wisconsin.

Clinton is using Mr. Obama's legacy to her advantage, but Lichtman argues the president himself should be doing more to calm the tensions within the Democratic Party between Clinton and her rival Bernie Sanders.

"Obama should have taken control of this election immediately. He knew Bernie Sanders was not going to be the nominee. Right away, early on, Barack Obama should have united the Democratic Party around Hillary Clinton," he said.

Lichtman argued that a protracted, bitter primary fight in the incumbent's party could matter much more than the dynamic in the primary race of the party not in control of the White House.

The Constitution Center points out that Democrats have only won a so-called third term twice since 1828 -- when Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836, and more literally when Franklin Roosevelt succeeded himself in 1940 for his own third term.

Republicans, on the other hand, have won a third term with greater frequency -- in 1868 (Ulysses Grant), 1876 (Rutherford Hayes), 1904 (Teddy Roosevelt) and 1988 (George H.W. Bush).

Margaret Thompson, a history and political science professor at Syracuse University, told CBS News that normally she would agree, but said the chaos within the GOP is very unusual and more extreme than in any other recent election.

If the president's approval rating remains steady, Thompson said it could give Democrats the upper hand. But with the election still six months away, much can still change.

"Too much can happen between now and then, including the proverbial October Surprise," she said. "I think other factors may be more significant, such as whether or not the GOP implodes at its convention."

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