Trump Isn’t as Unpopular as You Think
The president is no less popular today than when he won the election.
I’m in the unusual position of having predicted Trump’s election (and correctly called shenanigans on betting markets that wildly undervalued his chances). So let me put those chips back on the table to make another mildly contrarian point: Donald Trump really isn’t that unpopular.
I know, I know — you’ve seen dozens of articles and blogs and podcasts trumpeting his unique, historic, unprecedented, incredible unpopularity. And there’s a nugget of truth to that, if you compare Trump to previous presidents at this point in their administration.
But if you compare Donald Trump to, well, Donald Trump, not much has changed. The jaws of the Trump Disapproval Crocodile only open so wide.
What the polls actually seem to show is that Trump’s floor of support is still the high 30s or low 40s. Nothing — not Flynn, not Comey, not Russia, not his nominations or firings, not even Charlottesville, North Korea, golfing, Puerto Rico, healthcare, kneel-gate, and everything else that whipped up tsunamis of negative press — has made a dent.
The Pre-Election Floor? 40% (Give or Take)
From the first GOP debate to election day, Trump’s support among likely voters bounced around, but he always hit a floor at 39%. The events that periodically tanked his support were not lasting, let alone cumulative.
And beyond the horse-race polls with Clinton — which could arguably be attributed to her own historic unpopularity — Trump’s personal favorability consistently hovered in the mid-30s. In fact, his favorables are a few points higher now than on election day, when they were -21 points underwater.
The Post-Inauguration Floor? Still 40% (Give or Take)
Now compare those campaign polls to the post-inauguration 538 job approval aggregator (still looking at registered or likely voters, who like Trump more than non-voters).
Or Trump’s RealClearPolitics favorability aggregator:
A lot of people look at that and say, “Wow! That’s crazy that he’s so unpopular so quickly! Will he resign? Will he be impeached?! ‘When’, not ‘if’, right!”
What I see is just a reversion to the mean, falling back to his equilibrium level of support. His slide in popularity since the inauguration, when all presidents get a bump, is no faster than other presidents (although he started out less popular to begin with). And since mid-May, Trump’s approval and favorability have barely changed.
How on Earth Can That Be?
If you look at Gallup’s approval ratings for various groups, you’ll see why. Groups that loved Trump like him about the same, and groups that hated him before dislike him about the same. The net change in approval since May 15–21: -1 point for men, -1 for women, 0 for whites, -1 for blacks, +1 for Hispanics, -2 for high school or less, +1 for some college, 0 for college grads, +2 for independents, 0 for Democrats, -6 for Republicans.
That dip for Republicans is maybe worth noting, but even here, he’s held steady at 79% approval since August.
Whither Now Donald?
Talk of resignation now while his own party overwhelmingly supports him is… beyond unlikely. Impeachment rumors are salacious, but even if Democrats controlled Congress, there’s no chance it would happen at this point.
No matter how good an idea removing a president might be from the standpoint of protecting the Constitution (or keeping nukes in their silos), impeachment is a political decision, and Trump is doing okay politically. Despite the chaos, incompetence, and infighting of his first 9 months, he has basically maintained the level of support that carried him through the election, and he doesn’t even have the advantage of an opponent to vilify, demonize, and contrast himself with.
When the alternative to Trump isn’t generic “disapproval” but a real, specific Democrat (with flaws and unpopular policies), expect Trump’s support to rise, even among people who don’t like him — especially the 21% of Republicans, 35% of conservatives, and 56% of weekly churchgoers who don’t currently approve of his performance.
If we assume he’ll snag 5–6 points from people who don’t like him but like Democrat XYZ even less, he’s right back where he won.
This is not to say that “Trump is on track to win reelection” — remember, he only won because of ~100,000 votes in three states the first time, and he won an outright majority in none of them. Run the 2016 election again 1000 times and Trump probably loses 500. Run Trump against a Democrat who isn’t Hillary Clinton (and doesn’t alienate the 5.7% of voters who went third party), maybe he loses 900.
And Trump is unpopular, especially considering how good the economy is. But he’s not nearly as unpopular as he ought to be, and he might be as unpopular now as he’s going to be (at least in the short-run). Democrats should ponder that as they think about the midterms, a 2020 candidate, and how to erode Trump’s coalition.