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The eerie stability of Trump’s approval rating, explained.
On August 27, 2019, President Donald Trump held a 41.3 percent approval rating and a 54.2 percent disapproval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker. During the 365 days that followed, Trump became the third president impeached by the House of Representatives; America assassinated Iranian general Qassem Soleimani; more than 200,000 Americans died from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus; the unemployment rate rose from 3.7 percent to 10.2 percent; the US banned incoming travel from Europe, China, and Brazil; an estimated 12 million people lost health insurance coverage; Trump pardoned Roger Stone, who was facing jail time for dirty tricks on the president’s behalf; and George Floyd’s murder sparked a nationwide movement protesting for racial justice — to which officials responded by tear-gassing demonstrators in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, so Trump could pose for a photograph holding a Bible.
That is, of course, a bitterly incomplete list of a grimly consequential year in American history. But you’d never know it simply by following Trump’s poll numbers. On August 27, 2020 — one year later, and the day Trump used the White House as a backdrop for his convention speech — FiveThirtyEight had Trump at 42.2 percent approval and 54.3 percent disapproval. Everything had happened, and politically, nothing had mattered. Or, at the least, not much had changed.
“It’s really remarkable,” says Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University. “The stability of Trump’s numbers are almost unbelievable.”
They’re also unique. According to Gallup’s presidential approval database, President Ronald Reagan’s numbers bounced from a high of 68 to a low of 35 percent during his tenure. George H.W. Bush peaked at 81 and bottomed out at 29. Bill Clinton ranged between 73 and 37 percent. George W. Bush touched 90 percent and fell all the way to 25 percent. Barack Obama’s band was narrower but still stretched from 40 percent to 67 percent.
As for Trump, his highest approval rating is 49 and his lowest is 35 — a range of only 15 points across his presidency thus far. True, Trump has had less time in office than his predecessors. But he’s also had a more volatile first term than most of them, in world events, indicators of national health and happiness, and personal behavior. And even if you only look at first terms, Trump stands out:
This is the great irony of the Trump era: It has never felt like more is happening, and yet American political opinions have never been so immovable.
All this raises a few questions. First, should the eerie stability of Trump’s approval rating disturb or even surprise? Why do we expect presidential approval to bounce around in the first place? And second, what does it mean for American politics to be this locked in place, this insensitive to the rip and roar of events?
What would make you change your mind about Donald J. Trump?
When Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California Irvine, tries to explain “the amazing stability of Trump’s approval” in his classes, he starts with a question. He asks his students if there’s anything Trump could do to make them support him. And he’s invariably met by a sea of shaking heads. “If you went into Trump’s presidency thinking he’s a racist, sexist, xenophobic, immoral, narcissistic, corrupt, and incompetent person — beliefs held by most Clinton voters — then there’s literally almost nothing he could do to change your mind,” says Tesler.
The same is true in reverse. “If you see Trump as ‘the protector of Western Civilization,’ as Charlie Kirk called him the other night at the RNC, or the protector of white America, as Desmond King and Rogers Smith have called him, defending cherished (white Christian) American values from atheist, left-wing socialists who want to take your guns and put Cory Booker in charge of diversifying your neighborhoods, then there’s almost nothing that would make you abandon him,” Tesler continues.
Six months ago, this was my explanation of Trump’s approval ratings, too. Trump is such a gleefully polarizing figure — so contemptible to those he offends, so heroic to those he defends — that minds were made up on him before he ever stepped into the Oval Office. Moreover, Trump is a limited figure: He doesn’t switch strategies, adopt new tones, adapt to new circumstances. Where past presidents made concerted efforts to shift course as their presidencies evolved, pursuing unexpected policies to win over skeptics and new messages to quiet critics, Trump is just Trump. He’s reliably, inalterably, himself. Your view of the man is your view of the presidency, and that’s the way he wants it.
But pundits should be honest when reality surprises them. If you had told me, a year ago, that a pandemic virus would overrun the country, that 200,000 Americans would die and case numbers would dwarf Europe, that the economy would go into deep freeze and the federal government prove utterly feckless, I would’ve thought that’s the kind of systemic shock that could crack into public opinion. I’m not saying I would’ve predicted Trump falling to 20 percent, but I would’ve predicted movement.
The stability unnerves me because it undermines the basic theory of responsive democracy. If our political divisions cut so deep that even 200,000 deaths and 10.2 percent unemployment and a president musing about bleach injections can’t shake us, then what can? And if the answer is nothing, then that means the crucial form of accountability in American politics has collapsed. Yes, many of us are partisans, with a hard lean one way or the other. But the assumption has long been that beneath that, we are Americans, and we want the country governed with some bare level of competence, that we care more for our safety and our paychecks than our parties.
Trump’s ratings on the coronavirus largely track his broader approval ratings. On August 27, 38.9 percent of Americans approved of his handling of the coronavirus and 58 percent of Americans disapproved. That’s slightly worse than his overall approval spread, but only slightly.
That is to say, most Americans who approve of Trump broadly also think he’s doing a good job responding to the coronavirus. And who’s to say he isn’t? Few of us have true, firsthand knowledge of the government’s response to the pandemic. What we know of it is mediated by the information sources we choose and trust. “The nature of the crisis is perfectly set up for perception to matter a lot and be manipulatable,” says Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari. “Far more people know they had to stay home for two months than were directly affected by Covid-19 (so far, at least). Narratives that this has been a lie, a hoax, or an exaggeration, are very powerful for some people.”
My view, to be clear, is that Trump’s response to the coronavirus will stand as one of the great governance failures in American history. We are doing far worse than peer nations in controlling case rates and saving lives. Analyses suggest that upward of 70 percent of America’s coronavirus deaths could’ve been prevented by a faster, more capable response along the lines Australia, South Korea, Germany, and Singapore. And to write all this is to still give the White House too much credit — they have largely offered no response at all, shunting this crisis to the states and refusing to release a plan of their own or even follow their own guidelines.
Moreover, Trump has, himself, been a model of personal irresponsibility, fueling a culture war over face masks and packing supporters into arenas and the White House lawn. As a result, while 93 percent of Americans who strongly disapprove of Trump say face masks are effective, only 65 percent of those who strongly approve of Trump say the same. It is not, then, simply that Trump has done a poor job managing the federal government’s mobilization. Rather, he has been an active hindrance to the governors and mayors trying to fill the void he’s left.
Or so I’d argue. But in this era, what you believe depends on what you read. And if you watch Fox News — or, even more to the point, OANN, the White House’s favored network — the narrative is different. Democrats are overreacting, driving the economy into crisis in a bitter bid to drive Trump from office. Trump’s own rhetoric emphasizes what he did — namely, barring most travel from China — rather than the many, many things he refused to do, like setting up a national testing, contact tracing, and quarantining strategy.
“Millions of people are certainly feeling economic and psychological pain due to lockdowns and other measures,” says Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. “But the president seems to have been pretty successful in shifting the blame for those. He wants to reopen, but evil Democrats are dragging their feet. The obvious response is that reopening would lead to even more illnesses and fatalities, but those are hypothetical costs.”
Trump isn’t Teflon
I occasionally hear Trump described as the “Teflon president.” Many liberals are agog at how many scandals, disasters, and offensive comments Trump has survived. It can seem like nothing sticks to him.
But Trump isn’t Teflon. It’s simply that whatever will stick to him has already stuck to him. Absorbing this much damage and provoking this much loathing has not been a successful strategy. Stable poll numbers in the low-40s are hardly a political triumph. When the economy was strong, his approval ratings were far lower than the jobs and GDP numbers would predict. And while Trump’s approval ratings on the coronavirus are higher than what I think he deserves, they’re punishingly low in comparison to other world leaders.
According to Morning Consult data, France’s Emmanuel Macron is up 5 points since January, Canada’s Justin Trudeau is up 9 points, Germany’s Angela Merkel is up 16 points, and Australia’s Scott Morrison is up 25 points. Viewed in this way, Trump’s stability might be best understood as a tremendous political failure: He had the opportunity for a rally-round-the-leader effect that could have locked his reelection. His weak, erratic, ineffective response instead turned the pandemic into the central threat to his reelection: In Morning Consult’s polling, Biden held a 14-point advantage by the end of June when voters were asked which candidate they trusted on the coronavirus, up from a 3-point advantage in April.
It is also possible that the headline numbers hide smaller but electorally consequential shifts. “If there is one group Trump is leaking support from, it is older white people in Florida,” says Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. “At least that is how I read the data coming out of Florida. The Covid-19 response is actually killing older people there. As this goes on, more and more of them actually know someone who has been affected in some serious way. According to our data, that appears to have the power to blunt partisanship. Republicans follow their leaders when they are not afraid of getting sick. They don’t follow those cues when they are afraid of getting sick.” Biden now leads by more than 4 points in Florida, up from a dead heat in April.
It is telling that Trump’s strategy for winning reelection doesn’t seem to be a new message or a new plan for controlling the coronavirus or restarting the economy. Instead, he’s running a racialized campaign against protests, riots, and disorder — even though that disorder is happening on his watch as president. “The GOP has no policies so they deal entirely in grievance and identity,” says Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. That has been enough for Trump to hold a bit more than 40 percent of the electorate. But a bit more than 40 percent of the electorate is not a winning coalition, and it is far less than a capable leader might now hold.
So perhaps, compared to a hypothetical Trump response that was commanding and competent, the political cost of the path Trump followed has been significant, and it may lose him the presidency and discredit him in history. It’s worth remembering that even Herbert Hoover got 40 percent of the vote in the 1932 presidential election — more than three years into the Great Depression and not far off from where Trump is polling now. Sometimes it’s easier for the country in general, and partisans in particular, to admit a leader’s failures after he’s lost than it is when he — and they — are still fighting to keep power.
But still: Forty-two percent of Americans look at Trump and believe he’s doing a good job, or at least a good enough one. And nothing they’ve seen over the past year has shaken that view.
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