The Cost of Trump's Deepening Unpopularity
Gallup's first post-health care presidential approval poll showed President Donald Trump down to 36 percent approval, a new low. He had previously fallen slightly below Barack Obama's low point; he's now one tick lower than either Bill Clinton or Gerald Ford at their worst. Next up? Ronald Reagan's low was 35 percent approval, as the effects of a deep recession peaked in January, 1983, with unemployment over 10 percent. Lyndon Johnson matched that number in August 1968, after widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam had already driven him from seeking re-election. That Trump has almost matched them without those cataclysmic events is quite an achievement. 1
We should get beyond that headline, however, with a major caveat. He's not really quite that unpopular -- probably. Gallup has been running on the low side for Trump. On the other hand, one of Trump's best pollsters, Rasmussen, had him down to 45 percent. The polling averages all had Trump at new lows: RealClearPolitics at 42.1 percent, FiveThirtyEight at 41.8, and HuffPollster at 40.3. Those are awful, but they're not Gallup's utter disaster today. 2
What's clear is that these terrible numbers coincide with what is normally the honeymoon period, and Trump remains far below every other president of the polling era at this point.
The best news for Trump is that Reagan and Clinton both rebounded from awful early numbers to be re-elected pretty easily.
The bad news is, well, everything else, including the possibility that the polling averages don't yet fully account for reactions to the health-care debacle. And the possibility that we still are seeing a honeymoon effect, with Trump heading even lower as the effect wears off.
What matters are the effects Trump's unpopularity is having for him right now. 3 And if his polling numbers continue to drop, we're going to see even larger effects.
Everyone he deals with is going to be less likely to do what he wants. That ranges a lot depending on how their particular constituencies feel about him. Even for those who are most pro-Trump, the low overall approval numbers make it a bit less likely they'll do his bidding. And those who answer to groups which really hate him will be under increasing pressure to find ways to demonstrate their opposition. If that sounds like the unenthusiastic supporters and confident opposition Trump faced during the health-care debacle, that's correct -- so now imagine if he faces his next battles with even lower numbers.
This extends far beyond members of Congress to bureaucrats, state governments, interest groups, and even judges and leaders of foreign nations. So, for example, Republicans need to pass a new spending bill by late April or else the government will shut down, but as Ed Kilgore details, conservatives might add riders in the House -- such as defunding Planned Parenthood -- which could make Senate passage impossible. Assuming Trump wants to prevent a government shutdown, he'll not only want House conservatives to delay that battle, but he'll also want pro-life groups to wait as well -- since very few House Republicans are willing to stand up to those groups. That's not an unusual White House request to interest groups: Not to take a different position, but just to look the other way for a while and save a big fight for some other time. And it's a request that is more likely to be granted to a popular president than an unpopular one.
Everything from decisions by bureaucrats on whether to leak damaging information, to decisions by judges to challenge the administration can be affected by the president's (un)popularity.
Trump and the people around him may not quite realize how damaging the situation is for him. But it's long past time to replace the White House leaders who don't realize what's at stake for Trump's presidency.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
All of these presidents have low points far below those of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all dropped below 30 percent at some point.
A second caveat: the era of daily Gallup polls only began with Obama's presidency, and generally the further we go back in time, the fewer Gallup polls were taken. That means two things. First, it's with less frequent polls, it's more likely that Gallup just didn't happen to catch the lowest (or highest) point of previous presidencies. On top of that, frequent polls mean it's more likely to get an extreme reading just by chance. For example, Trump's earlier low happened earlier in March, when he spiked down from 40 percent (on polling through March 17) to 37 (March 18) and back to 39 (March 19). The single-day lower was very likely just a polling illusion -- and if Gallup had only done one survey that week, the odds are good that it would have returned a 39 percent approval or better.
All of which is why we should rely on polling averages, not single results from single pollsters.
I'm focusing on governing here, but there's one major electoral effect: Decisions by candidates to run or not, based on what they think will happen in 2018. If Trump stays unpopular for another few months, it's going to begin to lock in gains for Democrats in the midterms, even if he recovers somewhat by that point.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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