One Path for Trump’s Approval Ratings: The Case of W

David Eil
David Eil
Feb 6, 2017 · 5 min read

It’s easy to forget now how far was the fall in George W. Bush’s approval ratings. Right after 9/11, he enjoyed approval ratings of 90 percent, the highest ever recorded by Gallup. Right before the 2008 election, he had fallen to 25 percent, not far from the lowest ever recorded (Truman’s 22 percent). That 65 percent swan dive matches Truman for the greatest gap between high point and low point in a presidency. Here’s the graph:

The 90% approval was an aberration due to post-9/11 surge in patriotism. But even the fall from his second inauguration — when he was at 52% approval, not far from where Trump is now — to the end of his presidency is a long day’s journey into blight. What happened, and what are the lessons to be learned from this history?

  1. Lots of shit happened

Here’s an annotated version of a similar graph from Pew:

Notice that, except for maybe the tone-deaf “Mission Accomplished” announcement, which in any case was pre-2004 election, there’s no one big drop. There’s just a steady stream of scandals and failures — many that aren’t even listed here, like the Abu Ghraib scandal (broke April 2004), the DeLay scandal (2005), the failed and unpopular attempt to privatize Social Security (proposed in the SoTU in Feb 2005). The economy was also slowing down over this time. It took all of that to get Bush down to 25 percent. Any one of these items that you might consider major — say, the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina — only cost him a few points. He just kept screwing up.

2. It’s not all downhill

Presidential approval ratings follow what you might call the Viagra rule: they can always go back up. Even generationally terrible presidents have good things happen on their watch. Starting a war in Iraq won Bush some pretty good approval numbers. He got a little bump when Saddam Hussein was captured. Also, when you’re down really low, even a couple months of no headlines at all can win you some favor with the forgetful parts of the electorate. The lesson is it’s not enough to just sit back and wait for the already-existing Trump scandals and failures to percolate through the viewing public. There has to be constant downward pressure on approval for a long time to get it this low.

3. It started with the moderates

This Gallup table compares Bush approval ratings in Feb/March 2005 to the same one year later. Already at this point his approval ratings had fallen 15 points. The two groups that fell the most were independents (-22) and moderate Republicans (-13). Democrats already disliked Bush enough that there wasn’t much room for them to fall further, and conservative Republicans held on to their admiration for Bush a little longer than everyone else. In my last post I suggested not really worrying about the die-hard Trump supporters much because they can’t be turned anyway, and Bush’s history supports that case, at least for the next year or two.

4. Nobody liked Bush very much by the end

But by the end of Bush’s term, basically every group had soured on him, even conservative Republicans (again from Pew):

66 percent among conservative Republicans might still seem high for such an unpopular president, but that’s a far drop from 94 percent, and probably about as low as you can go among your base. In order to get a president down to 24 percent approval, it really does take a village. What changed that made Bush toxic to even his most ardent admirers?

5. Bush was viewed as incompetent.

As I said in a previous post, the most devastating attacks are the ones that have the widest audience. No matter what their political preferences, virtually every American wants to have a president who is competent. Bush entered office as an “anti-Washington outsider” who would bring management skills from the business world to run a tighter ship in the White House. By the end of his two terms, nobody was buying that any more. The word that people used to describe him most often was “incompetent.” It’s also the descriptor that increased the most in frequency from 2004 to 2008. The second biggest change was the drop in people describing Bush as a “leader.” (one last time from Pew):

Notice, too, that this happened without much change in people’s perception of Bush’s honesty — those calling him a “liar” actually went down from 18% to 4%, and “dishonest” went from 9% to 1%.

Trump is already a bit below where Bush was when he was inaugurated in 2005. By fall 2006, Bush had fallen into the mid-30s, gaining Democrats 31 House seats in the midterm elections. The same change in 2018 would give Democrats a House majority again.

Of course, we are not assured of getting a replay of the W saga. Trump might retain his current ratings. They might go up. They might go down for different reasons or in different ways than W’s did. But this is one way for Trump to implode. Not with one big bang, but with a rolling fugue of whimpers. Sad!

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