“We’re doing a great job,” said President Trump yesterday in a surprise endorsement of his own success. “The poll numbers are through the roof. Our poll numbers are great. And guess what? Nobody is going to come close to beating me in 2020 because of what we’ve done.”
Though Trump can always be counted on to testify to his unblemished record of winning, it was odd he chose to focus on poll numbers right at the moment, because one place they are not going is “through the roof.”
In fact, Trump’s numbers are dropping to near the lowest point of his presidency. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump’s approval rating is at 36 percent, and a majority of respondents strongly disapprove of his performance. An IBD/TIPP poll also puts the president at 36 percent, while the Economist shows him at 38 percent. Some others have him above 40 percent (Gallup’s latest is 41 percent), but not by much.
This isn’t a dramatic swing, but it is an identifiable downturn, especially since Trump’s approval ratings have been so stable over the course of his presidency. And if there was ever a moment when a small change could make a big difference, this is it.
Precisely locating the cause of incremental movements in presidential approval polls is next to impossible, particularly when we’re talking about Trump. There are so many cataclysmic things happening in any given week, there is no way to say with certainty what caused the change. But there are some likely suspects from the last few weeks — including the multiple former Trump aides who were either convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes, as well as the death of John McCain — which led to extensive media ruminations on Trump’s character flaws.
Revelations that a significant portion of people whom Trump himself hired believe he is a dangerous half-wit — coming from both Bob Woodward’s new book, as well as the tantalizing op-ed in the New York Times from an anonymous “senior official in the Trump administration” — could nudge the numbers even lower.
For a different president, those events and revelations might have produced bigger swings. But not in an age of party polarization: With lines between the parties drawn more starkly than ever, for the foreseeable future, we’re not likely to see a president lose many of his own party’s members or gain many supporters from the other party. That means fluctuations will happen only within a narrow band.
But Trump, of course, is unique. It is why he can have such low approval ratings, even when the economy is doing well. And with only two months remaining before the midterm elections, it’s difficult to imagine something will happen to turn his fortunes around. Unemployment is about as low as it can go. Republicans in Congress have stopped trying to do any ambitious legislating (if they can keep themselves from forcing another government shutdown, it will be a victory). And while it is theoretically possible Trump could engineer some kind of resounding foreign-policy triumph during the next few weeks, it seems rather unlikely.
Which would mean that between now and November, this is about as good as it’s going to get. As pollster Gary Langer pointed out, Trump has the lowest approval rating of any president heading into his first midterm election (the polling data go back to 1954). But what is most striking is the intensity of feeling he produces in his opponents. In the latest Post poll, 53 percent of respondents disapprove of him strongly, while only 7 percent disapproved of him somewhat. If you don’t like Trump, you really don’t like Trump.
Democrats hope it means the people who really don’t like him will stampede to the polls in November to register their discontent by voting out any and all Republicans — and they might. As Harry Enten of CNN argues, “For Republicans to have a realistic (i.e., within the margin of error) shot of maintaining control of the House in 2018, Trump’s approval rating must remain at least in the low 40s nationally.”
Could that happen? It’s possible. But a good economy is already built into people’s feelings about how Trump is doing, and it’s unlikely we will see some kind of dramatic Trump triumph over the next few weeks. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh getting confirmed may be the closest thing, but that may do more to make Democrats angry than to make Republicans grateful.
So it’s hard to see what would produce a significant upswing in satisfaction with Trump in the near term. The best Republicans may be able to hope for is a period of calm, one that doesn’t turn off any wavering Republican voters or make Democrats angrier than they already are, and lets everything settle quietly back to where it has been.
But I wouldn’t bet on calm, not with this president.