Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Plum Line | Opinion

Trump is historically unpopular. But the intensity gap should really terrify Republicans.

January 19, 2018 at 1:23 PM

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President Trump's first year on the job garnered him historically low approval ratings. From high-profile firings to contentious remarks, here's a look back at the ups and downs of his first year. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

With the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration coming tomorrow, there’s a raft of new polls out assessing what the American people think of the president, and the big story is that, just as he has cast aside norms of behavior, candor and propriety from his first day in office, Trump is breaking new ground.

There’s never been a president who was as deeply unpopular for as long as he has been at this stage of his presidency.

And when you look deeper into the polls, you see signs of real trouble for Republicans, driven by Trump’s ability to suck up everyone’s attention and focus. The president is always the main protagonist of our political story, but we may never have seen a period as personalized in one figure as this one is. And that is the single biggest problem Republicans face this November.

Let’s begin with the top line of the polls:

In the history of modern polling, there has never before been a president with a net negative approval rating at the end of his first year. There’s always some degree of honeymoon as the public gives the president a chance to succeed or fail. It’s true that as partisanship (especially negative partisanship) has intensified in recent years, there’s an approval ceiling that any president will bump up against, barring some extraordinary event such as the 9/11 attacks.

Related: [The first year of the Trump administration, in its own words]

But Trump’s low approval comes at a time when the economy is extremely strong — the unemployment rate is a mere 4.1 percent — which, all else being equal, one would expect would make people pretty happy with the country’s leadership. But of course, when Donald Trump is president, all else is never equal.

There’s something else vital to understand: Not only does Trump have high disapproval, but the intensity of his disapproval is unusually high, as well. For all the time news organizations spend writing “In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Support Trump” stories, intense dislike of Trump may be the most powerful force in the U.S. electorate right now. Consider these figures (I’ve added in some other recent polls):

Other polls show that the intensity of support for Trump has slightly decreased over the course of the year, while the opposition’s intensity has slightly increased. While there’s variation among polls, the general picture is that for every American who really loves Donald Trump, there are about two Americans who really hate him.

That’s what produces the election results we’ve seen all over the country in recent months, where Democratic candidates dramatically over-performed compared with how they’ve done in recent elections. Trump is such a powerful presence that he nationalizes every election to at least some degree, which is bad news for his party.

Now let’s think about how this picture of energized, angry Democratic voters and Republican voters who still support Trump but aren’t so enthusiastic about it could play out in November. Despite the fact that the president is on everyone’s mind, the calculation is different for voters of the two parties. A Democrat can deliver Trump a crushing blow with their vote, because if their party takes back one or both houses of Congress, the effect will be seismic. Not only would the GOP legislative agenda be immediately dead, but with their newfound subpoena power, Democrats could start investigating this administration from tip to tail.

Related: [This disaster is the handiwork of Donald Trump]

But if you’re a Republican voter who’s only marginally motivated by protecting Trump, what would drive a burning desire to turn out and vote GOP in November? On the party’s big issues, many of the questions have been settled. They got their tax cut. They tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This government shutdown battle may end with some kind of compromise on immigration. The administration will keep cutting regulations on things such as environmental protection and workers’ rights no matter who controls Congress. So if you’re a Republican voter, what is it you desperately want to keep House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in charge to do?

That’s not to say they don’t have an agenda (Ryan in particular is itching to mount an assault on the safety net). But it may not be one that gets the Republican base fired up — at least not to the degree that Democratic voters are motivated to give Trump a sock in the nose. Whether that changes between now and November will determine the future of this presidency.

Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog.

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