President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Polling Donald Trump is one of the most difficult and confusing exercises in modern politics. In Trump, we have a guy who won the presidency by surprisingly beating the polls in key Rust Belt states, of course. We also have a guy who maintains the loyalty of his base despite major flaws that this base readily acknowledges. As I wrote in June 2016, nearly half of Trump supporters — 46 percent — said one or more of the following: He had made a racist comment, was prejudiced and/or was unqualified to be president. Not half of all voters; half of his supporters.

I wouldn't be the first to argue that those voters stuck by Trump because of rank partisanship, distaste for Hillary Clinton and emphasizing other priorities. But a new poll from the Pew Research Center shows just how conflicted Trump voters are these days about as well as any poll I've seen. And despite all those hot takes about how Trump's penchant for controversy represents some kind of multidimensional chess game, the poll shows the damage continues to be done. Trump's base clearly has reservations about him, and those reservations are causing it to deteriorate slowly — albeit more slowly than people perhaps thought.

Pew asked American adults how they felt about Trump's conduct in office: Whether they “liked” it, had “mixed feelings” or “didn't like it.” It won't surprise you to see about 6 in 10 (58 percent) don't like it; that tracks with the number of Americans who disapprove of Trump overall.

The other two pieces of the pie are where things get interesting. According to Pew, another 25 percent of American adults say they have “mixed feelings,” and just 16 percent “like” it. Only about 1 in 6 voters say they like the way Trump has conducted himself as president.


Even among Republicans and GOP-leaning voters, just 34 percent “like” Trump's conduct. About 1 in 5 (19 percent) say they don't like it, and a plurality of 46 percent say they have “mixed feelings.”

The results hark back to a July Washington Post/ABC News poll, in which 70 percent of Americans described Trump's behavior as “unpresidential” and just 24 percent said it was “fitting and proper” for a president. But in that poll, a majority of Republicans — 54 percent — still said Trump's behavior was “fitting and proper.”


So the old poll showed 24 percent of adults signed off on Trump's conduct, and the new one puts that number at 16 percent. Part of that difference undoubtedly owes to how the question was asked, with The Post-ABC poll initially supplying two options and the Pew poll giving three. (Poll respondents are often tempted to take a more middle-ground position when given three options.) But both show basically the same thing: A huge amount of ambivalence about Trump's behavior, even among his base.

This ambivalence also showed up during the campaign. In late August, Quinnipiac University asked whether people who planned to vote for Trump were doing so because they liked Trump, because of party affiliation or because they opposed Clinton. Just 25 percent picked the “like Trump” option.

By September, it was down to 23 percent. At that point, three-fourths of likely Trump supporters (74 percent) said their vote wasn't really an endorsement of him so much as voting for a party and against a candidate they despised.


Those voters followed through and supported him, and most will say they approve of him today when given a binary option. But when you provide them a more nuanced response, their reservations become clearer. And this new poll shows a strong majority of the GOP base has at least some significant reservations. That's a pretty stunning commentary on where Trump's presidency stands today — a larger amount of ambivalence than perhaps any poll to date.

President Trump likes to trumpet his "tremendous" support and strong base, but polls show that his approval rating is declining, even among key demographics that voted for him in 2016. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

These and other polls continue to suggest all of the distractions and the tweets continue to take their toll on his presidency. The antidote to all of that during the campaign was partisanship and Clinton; the antidote today seems to be a strengthening economy and a mutual dislike for the Washington establishment and the media.

But if you ask the question the right way, you can learn some pretty revealing things about Trump's base. And looking at a poll like this, you have to wonder how Trump might be doing as president if he just set aside the constant provocation and controversy-stoking.