One year ago, I wrote about President Trump’s inevitable rise in the polls. I brought up how Democrats organized protests throughout President Nixon’s first term before he earned his 49-state re-election. I noted President Reagan’s early unpopularity — even worse than Trump’s right now — before he, too, won 49 states. And now, Gallup has given us even more context: Presidents Clinton and Obama, at some point in their second year in office, also had comparable numbers to President Trump before the American people awarded them a second term.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I think voters in 2020 will end up rejecting him like a bad kidney, but it’s important that, as of now, not only do his numbers have precedents from eventually re-elected presidents, but those numbers are indeed finally rising. Check out Real Clear Politics’s average of his approval polls over the last six months:
What was a 21-point net negative approval halfway through December has since, in just five months, been more than halved. This pattern brings forth three questions:
- Why are his numbers improving?
- Where will those numbers be in another five months?
- What impact will these rising numbers have on the 2018 midterms?
The answers to these questions have major implications. Let’s tackle them, one by one.
#1. Why are his numbers rising?
There are two broad reasons why we’re seeing his approval numbers climb. First, he’s enjoying the windfall of several positive developments:
- Politically, the Republican tax bill was passed right after Trump’s mid-December low-point. That was a big win for his administration after a couple months of what seemed like an incompetent administration that couldn’t coordinate any legislation despite his party controlling all major levers of government.
- Diplomatically, the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea happened on his watch, as did the release of three American prisoners from North Korea. It’s unclear what role the President has played, and, as usual, he has never shown that he knows any specifics about the complicated relationship of the peninsular rivals. Still, he so often tweets @us that he has something to do with it that enough people might believe it. (And it might even be true, considering his administration has continued sanctions, pressured China, and, bragged about having bigger buttons.) You can feel the frustrated mainstream media looking around for someone to gain traction with a counternarrative, but no luck yet, so we get more Stormy.
- Economically, the stock market continues to climb and unemployment continues to fall. Though these figures are right in line with patterns started during the Obama Administration, many voters naturally gravitate to the guy who’s in charge now. Of course, Republicans still insist Obama was the worst president ever and Democrats still insist that Trump is ruining the country. (Which he might be, but hey, 3.9 percent unemployment is a hell of a way to go down.)
In addition to this progress, we also have to remember it became virtually impossible for him to lose support from the voters he already had. I’ve had to remind Democrats on several occasions that, despite their anger and disbelief, a lot of people think he’s doing pretty well, and his support among Republicans is still strong — usually in the mid-80s.
Plus, not only did he have this solid, devoted floor of 37 percent, but he has that 37 percent convinced that any bad news about him must be fake news. The media has long provided oversight on the presidency — a responsibility that our legislative branch frequently eschews — but his supporters don’t trust it. As an example, consider how he brags about any poll that makes him look good but dismisses as fake any poll that makes him look bad. That hilarious selectivity shows how he and his supporters approach all news stories: trust if it’s positive, reject it if it’s negative. It’s as if he’s conditioned conservative media and his supporters to be antibodies against fakenewsitis. As a result, he’s totally inoculated from bad press. He could only get healthier, and he has. (One might even call him the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)
#2. Where will those numbers be in another five months?
Which leads to our next question. Can he get healthier still? It’s certainly possible. The economy looks good, the Korea developments are a long process, and Trump presumably will stick to speaking only with friendly media (read: Fox) to minimize the possibility of disrupting this progress. He hasn’t had a press conference in 451 days. It’s worth noting I was critical of Hillary Clinton at 267 days, and she was just a candidate, not the sitting President. I noted how Trump, in contrast, had “the fortitude to stand in front of reporters time and time again.” It appears that fortitude has been misplaced somewhere in the west wing. His advisers probably know that his ranting is good for ratings and galvanization, but if pressed on specifics on almost any issue, President Trump is as vapid as candidate Trump.
Still, we know he has a taste for his own foot, so a Twitter or Fox interview gaffe could be around the corner, which might beat back his numbers. Even short of that, despite an impressive 12 points in five months, his surge feels unsustainable. Standing up to the President is not just a majority of people who disapprove, but in nearly every poll the percentage of people who “strongly disapprove” is between 40 and 50 percent. These are all but immobile voters. They’ve made up their mind in much the same way his ardent supporters have. Indeed, a CNN/SSRS poll found even as Trump’s numbers improve, the percentage of people who “strongly approve” (28) and “strongly disapprove” (46) remain steady. That gives the President very little room to continue improving. He won’t climb much more.
The statisticians at FiveThirtyEight agree: despite such a wild presidency, no president of the last 70 years has had less volatility in their polling numbers. He’s been this high before, but never much higher. I expect him to top out pretty soon. Moreover, if the economy ever takes a sustained turn for the worse, you better believe Democrats and their friends in the media will tell voters it’s because the inertia of the Obama economy wore off and now it’s Trump’s to own, as he has so often done in the last 16 months.
#3. What impact can these rising numbers have on American politics?
This one’s obvious: even though the President isn’t on the ballot this November, presidential approval numbers directly impact midterm elections. Gallup found that the number of House seats lost by the party of presidents under 50 percent approval averaged 36. Of all instances of presidential approval being below 49 percent (there are six such instances), the president’s party has never done better than a 28-seat loss. The Democrats, remember, only need to add 25 seats for a majority. If Trump is in the low 40s this November, he’ll yet again have to pull off an electoral miracle.
The path to that miracle is clear: the President will insist that since the economy is strong and the world is safer, he’s the reason and everything else is noise. That could well be enough to pull the GOP along on his coattails. Not only did last week’s CNN/SSRS poll find the Democratic advantage on the generic ballot almost totally gone, but we can never forget that most pundits have habitually underestimated his ability to win elections.
That being said, I still don’t like the GOP’s chances. I didn’t care for the generic ballot when Democrats were up double digits, and I still don’t care for it when the two parties poll inside the margin of error. Republicans still seem to suffer from the “intensity gap,” which, unlike 2016, now favors the Democrats. As we saw earlier, the intensity of his detractors outpaces the adoration of his followers. (That same CNN/SSRS poll found Democrats still hold a 53 to 41 advantage in voters who are “very enthusiastic” about voting this November.) In midterm elections, when turnout is down and only the most emotional and politically devout go to the polls, the intensity figures are important indicators. Considering nearly half the American public strongly disapproves of this President, that will drive them to the polls to vote for the opposing party. Even if his polls improve another couple points, though the Senate would be safe, it likely won’t be enough to keep the House in Republican hands.