President Trump speaks to the media as he departs the White House for a fundraiser in Dallas, on the South Lawn of the White House, Oct. 25. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

In May, a battered President Trump sought shelter from the storm of a bad month in a traditional harbor: His poll numbers.

“Thank you for your support,” he tweeted. “Together, we will MAKE AMERICA SAFE AND GREAT AGAIN!” Above those words, a picture of Trump clapping, next to a poll number from Rasmussen Reports showing the level of support he was enjoying.

Which, oddly, was only 48 percent.

Normally, presidents aren’t terribly enthusiastic about poll numbers under 50 percent; after all, it means that less than half the country thinks you’re doing a good job. But, in fairness, it was a better poll number than others Trump had been seeing, and that was enough to make it worth celebrating, apparently.

Six months later, his presidency more than twice as old, Trump again celebrates polling from Rasmussen that has ticked upward.

In the context of that odd tweet from May, though, his new offering is even more baffling.

Forty-six percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, according to Rasmussen’s survey — two points lower than the poll he celebrated in May.

Trump layers more context onto his embrace of Rasmussen’s number this time around that’s worth sussing out. But before we do, let’s add some context of our own.

Approval rating polls don’t all measure the same thing. Different polls survey different groups. Some poll all American adults. Others survey only registered voters. Some, like Rasmussen, survey only likely voters. Each of those surveys is instructive, but they measure different things.

Why? Because the demographics of those groups differ. Likelihood of voting correlates to age and income (if you own your own home, for example, you are more likely to be registered to vote and to know where to vote). Age and income correlate to a greater likelihood of being Republican. So by using a likely-voter pool, you’re using a voter pool that skews more Republican. That’s one big reason Rasmussen polls consistently show Trump doing better than do other polls.

Compare Rasmussen’s results to the RealClearPolitics average of all recent polls over time. Republicans like Trump more than non-Republicans, and so Rasmussen’s results are pretty consistently higher than the average.


Other recent polls show less support for Trump.

  • Gallup’s most recent poll of adult Americans shows him with 38 percent approval.
  • CNN’s poll of adults earlier this month had him at 36 percent.
  • The Post-ABC poll released early in November had him at 37 percent.

With that context, let’s then address the claims Trump makes in his new tweet.

He says of Rasmussen that it was “[o]ne of the most accurate polls last time around,” presumably meaning during the 2016 election. Its final poll had Hillary Clinton leading by 2 points, which is about where Clinton ended up. (The RealClearPolitics average had her leading by 3 points.)

“But #FakeNews likes to say we’re in the 30’s,” Trump’s tweet added. “They are wrong.”

The “fake news” — Trump’s appellation for any news outlet that seeks to cover him objectively — likes to say that polls show him in the 30s because polls show him in the 30s, as above. Granted, among likely voters, he’s doing better, as we’ve explained. But if we’re talking about how much support Trump has now and not how much support he might have in 2020, all Americans seems like a better metric for gauging how he’s doing at the moment.

Then Trump’s tweet adds a very Trumpian comment: “Some people think numbers could be in the 50’s.”

“Some people” or “many people” is Trump’s traditional way of saying “nobody, but wouldn’t it be nice if.”

In this case, his claim that, you know, maybe that he’s over 50 percent approval conflicts with the rest of the tweet. Why? Because the survey from Rasmussen — “one of the most accurate polls last time around” — has 53 percent of likely voters disapproving of him! You can’t say “I’m doing better than the #FakeNews will tell you because this accurate poll shows me in the 40s and not the 30s” and then also say “but this accurate poll is also wrong.”

His claim that more than half the country supports him would mean that he’s actually gained support from last November, when he won 46 percent of the vote from those who went to the polls (a group that, by definition, was made up of likely voters). There’s nothing to suggest that he’s seen a substantial increase of support since then.

The last time any poll showed him above 50 percent approval was in late April. That poll was from Rasmussen.

What’s going on here? Trump is trying to convince people that things are going better for him than they might appear, that there’s a silent majority that stands at his back. Who’s he trying to convince? Well, his base, which believes that they are the majority of Americans, despite what the polls (and the election results) say. He’s probably also trying to convince Congress, since being an historically unpopular president is not a recipe for convincing representatives and senators that it’s important to support his (also unpopular) legislative aims.

Trump is also trying to convince himself.

Responding to a question about President Trump's low approval ratings on Sept. 1, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "I don't have faith in a lot of these polls." (Reuters)