Base Instinct: Do Trump’s Poll Numbers Support the Conclusion that his base is holding?

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll on President Trump’s performance contained one startling takeaway. Most of the numbers were in line with sentiment about Trump before and since he’s become President. His job approval rating is 42%. His ratings on judgment, honesty-trustworthiness, and personality-temperament remain low, in the 38–41% range. (Democrats and Republicans both looked bad on the poll: fewer than one-third of respondents thought the Republicans (32%) or Democrats (28%) were in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States.)

No surprises there. A number that screamed out among these low ratings was that 97% of the people who voted for Trump would vote for him again. The conclusion, contained in the Washington Post‘s headline, was that “his base is holding.” The first sentence of the story characterized Trump as “a president whose voters remain largely satisfied with his performance”.

That conclusion seemed weird to me. How does it square that his negatives are so high in all these areas, but his voters are so overwhelmingly satisfied?

Looking at the poll questions themselves, I could see that the questions were framed in such a way as to make it so it would be overly broad to draw the conclusion that his base his holding. The poll asked Trump voters, “Do you regret supporting Trump, or do you think that supporting Trump was the right thing to do in that election?” Essentially, that is the same as asking Trump voters if they now wish they had voted for Hillary Clinton. Johnson, McMullin and Stein aside, the election was a binary choice — Clinton or Trump. Given the poll questions, we can say his base still likes Trump as a choice over Clinton but really not much more.

It would have been more informative if the pollsters had asked some additional questions about how Trump would do if those who voted for him had the chance to vote again in the Republican primary contests or how he would do against other Democratic nominees in the general election or whether his voters could imagine voting for him in future elections. They didn’t ask if Trump voters would still support him against a Kasich or Rubio or Bush or Cruz or Sanders or Biden or some other candidate in the 2020 election. Both Clinton and Trump had high negatives going into last November’s election. In general, opinions about Trump aren’t much changed. And the ABC News/WaPo poll tells us opinions haven’t changed much about Hillary Clinton, either — at least among people who voted for Trump. What we can’t know from the way the poll asked the question is whether Trump’s base is holding. We only know that his voters (still) like him more than Clinton, or dislike him less.

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