The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump is the most unpopular presidential candidate since the former head of the Ku Klux Klan

6 min

If Republicans nominate Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, he would be the least popular major party nominee in at least three decades of Washington Post-ABC News polling.

Trump’s unfavorable rating stood at 67 percent — two-thirds of all Americans — in a March Post-ABC poll, including 56 percent who had a “strongly” unfavorable impression of him. Just 3 in 10 had a favorable impression of Trump (15 percent “strongly”).

American politicians tend to be more unpopular than usual these days, but it's hard to overstate how bad Trump's numbers are with all Americans. In fact, Trump’s highly negative ratings appear to have no equal among major party nominees in presidential campaigns over the past 32 years.

The chart below shows the highest unfavorable rating for Democratic and Republican presidential nominees at any point between their campaign launch and the general election.

Trump’s image troubles are one reason prominent Republicans are currently attempting to stop him in his tracks, seeing him as a threat to other GOP Senate and congressional candidates this fall — not to mention the future of the party’s image. Today’s favorable ratings could shift if Trump becomes the nominee — as the Fix’s Philip Bump noted, he got a boost from Republicans after his campaign launch last year — but current results also provide a clear gauge of Americans’ reactions to his presidential campaign over the past year.

The general election, if Trump makes it there, would not only be an up-or-down referendum on the businessman. But being strongly disliked by a substantial majority of the public is an obvious handicap, posing a challenge for both him and the Republican Party if he secures their nomination.

The problem with the ‘Donald Trump is too unpopular to become president’ argument

While Post-ABC polling on favorability or presidential candidates was limited ahead of the 1996, 1992 and 1984 general elections, other public surveys by Gallup, USA Today, CNN and the Los Angeles Times indicate unfavorable ratings for major-party nominees have never exceeded the mid-50s — well shy of Trump territory.

Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was not included in this comparison and had periods of widespread unpopularity, though his highest unfavorable mark of 58 percent in September 1996 still falls 9 points short of Trump’s mark.

If it weren’t for Trump, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton would be running up against records for unpopularity. Her 53 percent unfavorable mark in August essentially matched former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s high of 52 percent in March 2012 and is more than 10 points higher than the most negative marks for Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 campaign. Clinton’s mark is similar to then-President George H.W. Bush’s brief high of 53 percent unfavorable during his unsuccessful reelection campaign in July 1992.

But Clinton still has plenty of daylight between her and Trump on this measure; his current negative rating is 13 points higher than Clinton’s highest ever (54 percent in 2008), and Clinton’s highest “strongly unfavorable” rating, which was reached this month, still trails Trump’s current mark by 15 points (41 percent for Clinton vs. 56 percent for Trump).

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was similarly unpopular to Clinton in the latest Post-ABC poll, at 51 percent, though his strongly unfavorable rating was significantly lower (30 percent). Neither Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nor Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s favorable ratings were tested in the March survey, though other recent polls show Sanders’s unfavorable marks at 40 percent or below and Kasich’s at roughly 20 percent, with larger shares offering favorable views or saying they don’t know enough to report an opinion.

Finding a presidential candidate with unfavorable ratings exceeding Trump’s 67 percent mark requires looking beyond major-party nominees in The Post polling archives. But one long-shot candidate stands out: former Louisiana state representative and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was rated unfavorably by 69 percent of Americans during his unsuccessful 1992 run for the Republican nomination. Trump’s 30-percent favorable rating today is roughly three times the size of Duke’s 9 percent favorable mark in 1992, with far more reporting no opinion of Duke.

Coincidentally, Trump and Duke have tangled in both current and past presidential campaigns. Duke notably urged his radio audience to support Trump’s run for presidency last month, an endorsement which Trump disavowed after some controversy.

In 2000, Trump called Duke a racist and bigot when explaining why he would not accept the Reform Party’s presidential nomination, a party to which Duke belonged. Trump also cited Pat Buchanan’s membership in the Reform Party as a reason for bowing out of consideration; Buchanan’s 62 percent unfavorable rating that January is among the highest recorded for a presidential candidate in Post-ABC polling.

Despite similarly high negative marks, Trump has had more success in presidential primaries than either Duke or Buchanan. While Trump has won 19 state contests so far this year and is the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination, Duke lost every state where he competed in the 1992 Republican primaries, and Buchanan won only four states against Bob Dole in 1996.

Can Trump recover?

A big question is whether Trump’s image would improve in the eight months before November’s general election. Trump showed the potential to boost his standing when he launched his campaign last year. Prior to his announcement, a Post-ABC poll found only 16 percent rating him favorably, a number that more than doubled to 33 percent in July, with much of the increase among Republicans. Trump plateaued after that initial boost, and his current 30 percent favorable mark, is down from a peak 38 percent in November of last year. Given that a significant share of Trump’s detractors are Republicans, his ratings could rise if the party unites around him as their standard-bearer.

Past presidential campaigns show no clear pattern for candidates’ favorable ratings improving or deteriorating substantially from early spring to the fall of a general election year. Among recent nominees, Romney’s numbers did not clearly change through the 2012 campaign, though his “strongly favorable” and “strongly unfavorable” ratings both increased. Obama’s unfavorability marks went up slightly leading up to his 2012 election, but decreased leading up to his 2008 election. President George W. Bush also split the difference, his favorability dipping leading up to his 2004 election, but inching up ahead of his 2000 election.

Put simply: Trump’s image is very unpopular by historical standards, and presidential candidates do not tend to grow much more popular during election years.

The most recent Post-ABC poll was conducted March 3 to 6 among a random national sample of 1,000 adults reached on conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.