It’s easy to see how we might miss that distinction. Most Trump-related news follows a predictable cycle: The president gets into a loud, ugly fight with someone (maybe another politician, a reporter, National Football League players or — the list goes on), the story lasts somewhere between six and 48 hours, and afterwards his approval ratings fail to move. Most other politicians wouldn’t dream of picking these kinds of fights. But two years into the Trump era, voters seem to have priced Trump’s behavior into their estimates of Trump. And though Democrats may need to focus on Trump’s outrages to keep their base fired up, they could win the rest of the country by making the case for their own competence.
Right now, things look different and not because of any provocation the president has lobbed on Twitter. The partial government shutdown really does seem to be dragging down Trump’s job approval rating. That’s because Americans care about competence and policy. And, as with any other president, when Trump fares poorly in those areas, his poll numbers take a hit.
The graphic above shows the trend in Trump’s approval rating (as collected by FiveThirtyEight, sans tracking polls) since Inauguration Day. (The trend line was drawn using a GAM — which basically tries to catch patterns in the data without overreacting to statistical noise.) I’ve also added in annotation for various domestic policy events. (See an earlier version of the graphic here.)
The trend seems clear here — when Trump gets into a losing policy debate, he tends to lose support. The greatest example of this is the health-care debate of 2017: When Trump and congressional Republicans tried to push through unpopular Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) replacements, Trump’s numbers suffered. By the end of the year, the health-care push had failed and tax reform (another not-so-popular bill) had passed — and, as both of those stories left the news, Trump’s numbers drifted upwards. But, as the shutdown debate began, Trump’s numbers started to slide.
Policy stories that were short-lived or had to compete for airtime (e.g., the Republican immigration reform efforts) often didn’t move the needle much. And the sorts of stories that often take over the media (e.g., a big cultural conflict, the Russia investigation, etc.) generally don’t cause Trump’s approval rating to fluctuate significantly either.
For example, a series of Russia-related articles were published in the summer of 2018, and Trump’s approval stayed consistent in basically every average. Earlier in 2018, Rob Porter, Trump’s staff secretary, resigned after his ex-wives came forward to accuse him of domestic violence. Trump defended Porter, but Trump did so while his approval rating was on an upswing, and the uproar didn’t stop that trend. Trump fought with protesting NFL players at one of his lower points in 2017 and one of his higher points in 2018, and neither event seemed to change things much.
The pattern has repeated itself since the summer of 2017 — Trump’s numbers tend to move in response to prolonged, highly covered policy or policy-adjacent stories. People want the government to be effective and do popular things, so when Trump does the opposite of that, his numbers take a noticeable hit.
That’s not to say other types of stories don’t matter. They objectively do, and they’re arguably a significant reason that Trump’s numbers have been stuck between the high 30s and low-to-mid 40s for most of his presidency. And the pattern isn’t completely clean. Other trend lines saw a small, temporary dip in Trump’s standing around the time of John McCain’s funeral and the beginning of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process. Those events touched on both Trump’s style and his substance.
These results suggest that, in a way, Trump is normal. Americans judge him on many of the same criteria they use to evaluate other presidents. When Trump pushes an unpopular policy in a sustained way, he loses people. When he backs off or just stays out of the news for a while, things ease off a bit.
Trump could, in theory, use this post-midterms time to modulate, back away from controversy, take credit for the economy, get some small compromise bills passed and try to generally let his approval ratings rise naturally.
But Trump being Trump, he doesn’t want to coast. In the few short months since Election Day, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saw the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and (most importantly for this analysis) got into a protracted shutdown fight with Democrats. The president seems to think that playing to the base on policy — even when it means pushing unpopular bills or keeping the government shut down — and generally being chaotic is good strategy.
If Trump keeps up with a sort of chaos-plus-base-directed policy strategy, he might become vulnerable to a Democrat who focuses more on competence than culture. The Democratic nominee will obviously need support from the base, but these numbers suggest that a Democrat who persuasively argues he or she can govern more effectively than Trump might have a big advantage. A solid majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance, and a competence-oriented Democrat could win by getting votes only from that group.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that an abnormal president needs to be met with an unusual response from the candidates challenging him. And the unusual response might work (e.g., if a recession hits, then maybe any Democrat would be able to win easily). But Democrats might want to avoid overthinking this one and give Americans what they appear to want — a return to normalcy.