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Five Facts About Trump's 'Popularity'

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump won the election. That's a fact. But since then, Trump, his supporters and even some pundits are making various claims about his victory that aren't true, starting with his Orwellian assertions to have won in a landslide or even recording "one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history."

Here are a few other real facts about the president-elect, the election and public opinion. 

1. With almost all ballots finally counted, Hillary Clinton won the "popular" vote -- that is, the total number of votes cast -- by more than 2.8 million, about a 2.1 percent edge over Trump's tally. This is a larger gap than the one in the 2000 election, when Al Gore won about a half-million votes more than George W. Bush did. John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 were each elected president with a smaller percentage lead in total votes cast than Clinton's lead over Trump. In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry by only 2.5 percent of the vote. 

No, winning the popular vote doesn't have any legal standing at all. We shouldn't pretend otherwise. But it does mean that claiming the voters were demanding Trump or the programs he favored is dubious at best. 

2. Trump's Electoral College margin, 306 to 232, was below the average spread. Nate Silver has the details, ranking Trump's victory eighth out of the last 10 elections. A uniform 1 percent swing to Clinton would have given her Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and the presidency. Trump won those three crucial states by a total of less than 80,000 votes. 

3. Republicans lost ground in the House and the Senate. While the party kept its majority in both chambers, it will hold fewer seats. Historically, this has tended to make it harder for presidents to get their way. 

4. Trump remains unusually unpopular. The current HuffPollster estimate has him at 47 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable; that compares with Barack Obama's 67 percent favorable at the same point in 2008. Pew finds approval for Trump's transition from 10 to 30 percentage points lower than that of the last four presidents at this stage. 

5. It's true that Republicans won big in both 2010 and 2014, when Obama wasn't very popular. But it's hard to say that voters this year were rejecting Obama, whose approval ratings continue to surge. The president's current Gallup approval level is 59 percent, matching or exceeding that of most two-term presidents at this point. 

No, none of these five facts takes away from Trump's victory, and his unpopularity doesn't justify any of the wild and impractical calls to defeat him by encouraging members of the Electoral College to defy instructions.

But presidential popularity -- or the lack thereof -- still matters. Trump could become much more popular after he takes office. Or, starting his presidency with record low approval ratings, he could slip down more. If that happens, he will likely receive little deference from Congress, Republicans included, or from executive-branch departments and agencies. 

We will find all this out soon enough. But in the mean time, don't believe that the next president is as popular as he says he is, or that he has any special electoral magic allowing him to get away with outrageous statements and actions that would hurt any other politician. There's nothing Teflon about this president-elect. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net