The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Donald Trump’s low approval rating may mean less than you think

President Trump gives a thumbs-up to reporters as he waits to speak with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the Oval Office on Jan. 29. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Social media erupted into paroxysms of schadenfreude over the weekend with the discovery that President Trump’s daily approval rating from Gallup had hit a new low of 37 percent. That figure is lower than Barack Obama experienced at any point over the course of his presidency. On a daily basis, Trump is now averaging 42.1 percent approval, lower than any other previous president included in Gallup’s data.

The vertical dashed lines mark Trump’s average and low.

For those looking to these figures as proof that Trump’s presidency is failing and, perhaps an eventual drag on his party, there are a few reasons to wait before spiking the football.

The first is that Gallup’s daily numbers are volatile. He’s been down before, as low as 38 percent approval. A week later, he was at 43 percent. On March 11, about a week before the March 18 low that’s gotten so much attention, he was at 45 percent approval — which then collapsed.

Why? What happened between March 11 and March 18? You can point to any number of things, of course. It’s hard to say. Gallup usually tracks approval numbers based on weekly averages precisely to smooth out the volatility the daily polling can see. When you do that, Trump’s time in office has been poorly reviewed, but not quite as dramatically so.

Gallup will release new weekly numbers shortly that should show an average approval of about 40 percent. That would tie the lowest weekly average Obama ever saw.

But this is also just one polling firm. Using data from Huffington Post Pollster, you can see that the average of a variety polls of Trump’s approval is much smoother than the Gallup daily poll. There’s still been a recent downturn, but a more modest one than the Gallup numbers might suggest.

You’ll notice, too, that Gallup’s daily numbers are a bit lower than the running trend line in that overall average. As The Washington Post’s polling manager Scott Clement pointed out on Twitter, this is in part due to the universe that Gallup is interviewing: All Americans, as opposed to just registered or likely voters.

Pew Research dove into this split last month. As we’ve noted frequently, pools of likely voters tend to skew more Republican than other groups because those most likely to vote — older, wealthier people — overlap with the Republican base. (This is one reason that Republicans have recently fared better during lower-turnout midterm elections.) If we separate out the universes of polls in that Huffington Post data, the split between polls measuring just likely voters and those measuring everyone is clear.

Mind you, the likely-voter polls include the Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports (the poll that Trump and his allies tend to mention, just as Trump’s opponents like to talk about Gallup). And you’ll notice, too, that the likely-voter numbers have also slipped over time.

If you’re a Republican looking at the extent to which Trump might pose an electoral risk, the fact that likely voters have been more supportive of his presidency so far is probable reassuring. What’s more, Republicans continue to strongly approve of Trump — even in Gallup’s polling.

Over the last few months of his presidency, Obama averaged about 91 percent approval from Democrats. Among Republicans, Trump’s approval is only slightly lower, at 87 percent. Among the opposing party, neither was terribly popular.

That’s going to be reassuring to Republicans, too. What won’t be is that yellow line. Independents like Trump far less than they did Obama, though, again, this includes everyone, not just registered voters. Trump is averaging 38 percent approval from independents. While he ended high across the board, Obama averaged 44 percent support from that group over the course of his presidency. Because partisans were so polarized, it was often the independents that drove his overall approval rating. So far, that’s true for Trump, too. If those numbers shift, his overall Gallup approval rating will shift up, too — as it did since his previous low.

If Gallup’s approval numbers for Trump pick back up, it probably won’t earn quite the same level of attention on social media. If they don’t, though? That social media firestorm would be warranted.