Gallup’s survey data, though, suggests that Trump is uncommonly unpopular for a president-elect. That’s in large part because Democrats are particularly sour on him. Only 1 in 10 Democrats view Trump positively, a substantially lower percentage than the number of Republicans who viewed Obama or Bill Clinton positively after their elections — and only a third of the number of Democrats who viewed George W. Bush positively after the contentious 2000 election.
Perhaps more important over the long term, though, is that independents are also unusually iffy about Trump.
Before we explain why that’s the case, some historical context.
Obama spent most of his two terms under 50 percent approval. He started out well, but his support quickly evaporated. He had a brief spike around the 2012 election, but only passed 50 percent again in the heat of the 2016 campaign. In Gallup’s weekly averages, Obama’s only been at or above 50 percent 30 percent of the time. Take out 2009, and he’s only been there a fifth of the time — but since January, he’s been at or above 50 percent 76 percent of the time.
Why? As we pointed out in October, it’s heavily thanks to improved ratings from independents, college graduates and members of his own party.
Compare Obama's two terms with the two two-term presidents that preceded him, viewed through the lens of partisanship.
Most of the time, attitudes about the presidents stayed above 75 percent with their own parties and below 25 percent with the other party. There are key exceptions, though, which explain most of the graph at the top of this article.
The first is Bush’s spike in favorability among Democrats early in his first term. That’s 9/11, as you are probably aware. Then there’s the dip in Bush’s approval among Republicans in his second term. That’s the Iraq War (mostly), and explains why his numbers languished below 50 percent for those four years. For Clinton, there’s the uptick among Republicans in his second term, thanks to the strong economy. That kept him above 50 percent.
For Obama, the numbers have been much more consistent. That’s meant that the opinions of those independents have largely been what drives how he’s viewed overall.
It seems safe to assume that Trump will come into office without the honeymoon period that Obama enjoyed in 2009. It’s still fairly safe to assume that, at least at the outset, Trump’s numbers with Democrats and independents won’t be that great. If the pattern that held throughout Obama’s two terms continues moving forward, that means that Trump will spend a lot of time under 50 percent approval.
One of the fascinating things about the 2016 election was that it reinforced how strong a role partisanship plays in American politics. Trump’s campaign was slow to gear up and he made little effort to moderate his positions for the left, much less for less-conservative Republicans. It didn’t matter. But that could also mean that Trump will have a harder time convincing non-Republican Americans that he’s doing a good job.
It could mean that the below-50-percent pattern of presidential approval that has been the norm for the past decade may hold.