Politics

How Trump Can Improve (or Tank) His Approvals

Other presidents have recovered from low approval ratings. They've also tumbled to sub-Trumpian depths.

Approval rating.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump began his presidency as the least popular new president of the polling era by a large margin. Since then, he's lost more ground

The polling averages tell the story (as always, use the polling averages, rather than cherry-picking individual surveys). Trump is at 44-percent approval and 49-percent disapproval according to the HuffPollster estimate, while the RealClearPolitics average has him at 44/50. To be upside-down in a first month is unprecedented; it usually takes a new president many months, sometimes years, to reach that mark. 1  

It's still presumably possible for Trump to recover. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both had periods of deep unpopularity during their first terms, complete with stories of White House disarray and personal inadequacies, yet both rallied and wound up with easy re-elections and reputations for political genius. It's not hard to imagine what it would take for healthier Trump ratings to become possible -- although it's a lot harder to imagine it actually happening. If the White House starts running smoothly (almost certainly requiring a new chief of staff to come in and clean house), and Trump somehow started sticking to scripts written by a real speechwriting team and turned his Twitter feed over to real communications professionals -- and then if the economy remains solid and the U.S. is at peace -- Trump's opposition would lose steam, even if many of his policies would still anger core Democratic Party groups.

It's also possible that some event could inspire a rally-around-the-flag response that could spike his approval ratings. But that's a lot less predictable a reaction than many believe. Large, long-lasting rally effects are rare. And there's no guarantee that Trump would benefit from, say, a terrorist attack, even in the short run. Reactions to such events depend on how the media reports them and how Democrats respond, and neither would necessarily support Trump. Nor is it certain that the Tweeter-in-Chief would be able to behave himself well enough to get the benefit of the doubt from many who currently think he's doing a bad job. It's not hard to imagine Trump reacting to a foreign-policy or national-security crisis by lashing out at an inappropriate target -- or by getting distracted by some petty unrelated feud.

What about the downside? Some pundits suggest that strong partisan polarization means that Trump wouldn't lose his Republican supporters. If that's true, then what's happened so far is just partisanship kicking in sooner than it usually does, suggesting that Trump's approval will now move within the narrow range that President Barack Obama's approval had for all but the first six months or so of his presidency. 

That's possible, but I'm skeptical. It was only one president ago when George W. Bush broke the all-time record for best approval rating just after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and then matched some of the least-popular-ever Gallup approval numbers during his second term. I wouldn't predict that Trump will join Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Harry Truman in suffering approval numbers in the mid-20s, but I don't see anything in polling history that suggests it's no longer possible for a president to do that.

At the very least, it's surely possible that Trump could lose his post-election favorability surge. Throughout the campaign, only some 30 to 35 percent of poll respondents reported favorable views of the reality television star, but that number spiked up to the mid-40s after the Nov. 8 election, and has remained there since Thanksgiving. In other words, a fair number of people didn't really like Trump but were willing to vote for him, and once he won they were willing to give him a chance. If things continue to go badly, it's hard to see why they wouldn't abandon him in survey responses, even if they might still wind up voting for him in 2020. 

Of course, the less popular Trump appears to be, the less likely it becomes that prominent Republicans will publicly support him (and the more likely they'll be willing to publicly criticize him), which in turn might make rank-and-file Republican voters less likely to support him. That's the kind of vicious spiral that ends with Ted Cruz and other ambitious Republican politicians suddenly finding Iowa and New Hampshire to be excellent vacation spots. 

The bottom line is that we really don't know whether Trump's approval has a floor, and if so what it is. We'll just have to wait for the numbers.

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

  1. Be somewhat wary of the exact numbers. The HuffPollster estimate in particular can be unstable with limited data. Earlier, I reported it at 39 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval, but once new polls were published it turned out Trump never had an average that low. So these may change, too. But not enough to affect the conclusion that he's the least popular new president of the polling era.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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