President Trump narrowed in on one piece of feedback from his lengthy, weird news conference on Thursday.
Thank you for all of the nice statements on the Press Conference yesterday. Rush Limbaugh said one of greatest ever. Fake media not happy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
That’s not what Rush Limbaugh said. The conservative radio host said that the hour-plus that Trump spent railing against the media was the most “effective” news conference he’d seen. Why? “When I say ‘effective,’ I’m talking about rallying people who voted for him to stay with him,” Limbaugh explained.
It’s likely that the “nice statements” Trump said he received came from that same group: people who backed him enthusiastically and were pleased to see him bringing the fight that he’d promised. Polling has repeatedly shown that Trump is doing just fine with that group.
At Business Insider, Josh Barro made an important point about that play-to-the-base strategy. “Trump’s presidency,” Barro wrote, “lies in the hands of the Trump-curious” — meaning those who think Trump could do a good job but who are skeptical, such as the voters who weren’t in Trump’s base but who may have voted for him anyway. Maybe they voted for him because they are Republicans who figured the party would keep him in line. Maybe they voted for him because they hated Hillary Clinton. That group was enough to push Trump past the finish line in the critical states he needed for his electoral college victory.
“With these voters on his side, Trump can wield a fearsome coalition that would help him retain Congress in two years and persuade Republicans and Democrats in Congress to bend to his agenda in the meantime,” Barro wrote. “Without them, he is unpopular and ridiculous.”
A two-part question emerges: Who are the Trump-curious, and are their opinions of Trump changing?
With our partners at ABC News, The Washington Post polled shortly after the election and asked people whom they voted for. Democrats and Republicans mostly voted for the candidate from their parties. Independents were about split. Most independents, though, tend to lean toward one party. If we break out those leaning independents (the narrower bars below), the remaining independent-independent voters were more heavily supportive of Trump than were independents overall. (Note the outlined box.)
But independent voters are a small part of the electoral pie. Trump’s base of support was mostly Republican and mostly white. Among those two groups, he received more votes from conservatives and those without college degrees, respectively.
There’s overlap between the moderate Republicans and the college-educated whites. Forty-four percent of non-college-educated whites described themselves as conservative in our poll; only 28 percent of college-educated whites said the same thing, with 42 percent of that group describing themselves as moderate.
Among Trump voters, moderates were more skeptical of Trump’s upcoming presidency than were conservatives. When asked how optimistic they were about the next year, moderates were 19 percentage points less likely to say they were very optimistic than were conservatives. Asked how confident they were that Trump would serve effectively, moderates were 20 points less likely to say they were very confident.
Gallup tracks presidential approval ratings by ideology. For the first three weeks of Trump’s administration, the group that’s been most supportive of him is the group that was least supportive of President Barack Obama over his last three weeks: conservative Republicans.
Notice that outlined box, though. At the top are moderate Republicans, who are less approving of Trump now than were moderate and conservative Democrats of Obama at the end of his tenure. What’s more, their approval of Trump dipped in the third week, as it did among independents.
Those approval ratings from independents are remarkable, far lower than they were at the end of Obama’s second term. If we look at these ratings relative to the overall approval ratings each week — that is, the rating for conservative Republicans minus the overall approval rating — you can see that Trump performs more poorly with independents relative to his overall approval rating.
Approval ratings from independents drove Obama’s overall approval rating, thanks to how polarized opinions of him were. Trump’s approval ratings are driven heavily by how much support he gets from Republicans. If support from moderate Republicans continues to erode, Trump’s approval ratings will sink even further.
There’s a fascinating footnote to this. Fox News, the most-watched network among Republicans, offered skeptical analysis of Trump’s news conference on Friday morning — even on “Fox and Friends,” which has been so Trump-friendly that the president praised them by name during the presser. According to a pre-inauguration poll from Suffolk University, 20 percent of those who identified Fox as their most-trusted network described themselves as moderate. If Fox is critical of Trump, what happens to those viewers’ opinions of the president?
Trump has been in office for less than a month, and the extent of his support matters far more in 2020, when he’s up for reelection. But if, over the next year or so, Trump’s base of support winnows to just that core that pushed him through the Republican primaries, it will be hard for members of his party to stand with him — and it will be easy for Democrats to target their opponents by tying them to an unpopular president.
Trump’s base doesn’t matter, as Barro notes. It’s the people who voted for him reluctantly — heavily moderate Republicans — who will determine what happens next.