The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s base is drifting away — and may never return

President Trump likes to trumpet his "tremendous" support and strong base, but polls show that his approval rating is declining. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Polls released over the past week or so show President Trump’s overall approval rating sinking and, more ominous for the president’s psyche, an erosion among his most devoted followers.

Politico reports: “Only 40 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing as president, the new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows, down from a high-water mark of 52 percent in March. And the percentage who approve strongly — one way to measure the size of Trump’s most fervent supporters — is also at a new low: just 18 percent.”

Likewise, Quinnipiac reports , his “strongly approve” number is at 23 percent, down 10 points from early February. In addition, “Republican firms Firehouse Strategies and Optimus surveyed likely midterm voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida on Trump’s favorability once in April and again in August. In those four months, the share of voters with a ‘strongly favorable’ opinion of the president shrunk from 35.3 percent to 28.6 percent.” The story is the same in the CNN poll: “Among Republicans, strong approval has dropped from 73% in February to 59% now.” Among all voters, the strong-approval number has dropped 6 points since March to 24 percent.

The IBD/TIPP poll reports Trump’s disapproval rating soared to 59 percent, with only 32 percent approval:

Trump lost significant support across the board, but saw big declines among areas of core support, including Republicans, Midwesterners, middle-income families, white men and the high-school educated. The results come in the wake of the Senate’s failure to repeal ObamaCare, upheavals in the White House staff, the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and the daily beatings administered by the mainstream press.

While the president waves any bad polling off as “fake,” the numbers are alarming in a number of respects.

First, the GOP numbers may be even worse than they appear as fewer people self-identify as Republicans. Gallup reported, “The current seven-point Democratic edge in party affiliation is similar to what it was in 1998 and 2006, the two strongest Democratic years among the most recent midterm elections. If Democrats can maintain a significant advantage in Americans’ party preference over the next 17 months, it would serve them well in the 2018 midterm elections.” There’s a smaller pool of his party’s voters, in which fewer people are strong supporters.

Second, Trump has suffered the polling slump when the economy is strong and perceptions of the economy are very positive. Trump hasn’t benefited, as most presidents do when the economy does well. If the economy slumps, however, it’s quite possible that his numbers may slip even further.

Third, some of the drop certainly has to do with Trump’s colossal failure on health care, not to mention his failure to deliver on other items (e.g. the wall). But remember that the die-hard Trump fans in many cases didn’t much care about policies and didn’t even think he’d really do all the things he promised. They liked him because he hated the “right” people (e.g. elites), fought for them, channeled their fears and prejudices and spoke his mind. He still does all those things and yet the magic isn’t there. It may be that the aura of “loser” has tainted his image, or it may be that his “act” has gotten stale. After the first 100 tweets slamming the media, the 101st isn’t as amusing. It is also possible that voters actually thought he was smarter, more competent and more able than he really is; the real Trump is a disappointment for these voters. This would be a deeply troubling phenomenon for Trump’s team because it suggests that Trump himself (who will never change) is the problem, not any particular thing he has or has not done. Maybe the TV reality host isn’t interesting enough to hold the public’s attention for more than two years (since he announced his presidential run). If that’s the case, his ratings will get worse over time.

Finally, Trump is plainly obsessed with keeping his fans on board. Why else go to deep-red West Virginia? Why else tweet that his base is stronger than ever? He’s overcompensating, to put it mildly. The more he struggles to please this crowd, the more he alienates everyone else. He cannot stop his base from defecting, and he cannot win over new voters to take their place. Those people fretting that Trump “gets away” with outlandish lies, inappropriate outbursts, galling ignorance and rejection of democratic norms should rest easy. Trump is paying a huge price for his abnormal behavior. And he likely is incapable of changing.