When President Trump signed a spending agreement at the end of January to reopen the government, the consensus seemed to be that the face-off with Democrats in Congress would politically damage him. Once again, his critics were wrong.
Today, Trump’s job approval ratings are back to pre-shutdown levels, only two or three points below a level that would make him the favorite to win reelection. He initiated the shutdown in comparatively good political shape, with average approval ratings at 42.5 percent when the shutdown began on Dec. 22, 2018, according to Real Clear Politics (RCP). His ratings dipped while it was occurring, hitting a low of 40.9 percent during the crisis.
His ratings quickly rebounded, however, immediately after his Feb. 5 State of the Union address. By March 3, they stood at 44.4 percent, near his high-water mark since the early days of his presidency. Today, they stand at 43.5 percent, a point higher than when the shutdown started and well within the range he has sat at for most of the past year.
This was completely predictable, yet the usual parade of analysts got it wrong. Writing at the shutdown’s end, most said that Trump was clearly the loser — that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had outmaneuvered him and that he had caved without getting a good deal for his base. He was even called a “wimp” by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, one of his earliest backers and the author of “In Trump We Trust.”
This spectacular failure to understand Trump’s appeal is simply par for the establishment course. Trump’s voters understand he faces intense opposition to enact his agenda. How could they fail to see it, since they are reminded of that fact every time they open a newspaper or turn on the television?
Faced with this, Trump’s supporters do not expect he will win. They are happy when he does, but with commentators, actors and comics united against him nearly every day, they easily understand when he doesn’t. For the mass of his fans, all he must do is fight — and fight he did during the 35-day shutdown.
Trump’s support is remarkably stable and resilient. His job approval ratings have wavered between 42 percent and 44 percent for nearly a year now. They have dipped twice, once after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) passed away and again during the shutdown. Both times, they rose sharply when the event passed from the scene.
This gives Trump an enormous opportunity to move forward. Assuming the economy stays strong and neither the Mueller report nor congressional investigations reveals a smoking gun directly implicating the president in an illegal act — two big ifs — he is tantalizingly close to the level of support where he becomes the favorite for reelection.
Data from the 2018 exit poll clearly shows this. Trump’s job approval ratings in the RCP average was a shade over 43 percent on Election Day, but the exit poll pegged it at 45 percent. More importantly, his approval rating stood at 50 percent or higher in every state he carried except Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. His approval stood at 48 percent in Wisconsin, where incumbent Gov. Scott Walker (R) lost by less than 1 percent.
Extrapolating from these data, if Trump could raise his job approval rating in the national average by only 2 or 3 percentage points, he would almost certainly have more than 50 percent approval in enough states to win the electoral college. That’s crucial because presidents running for reelection tend to receive a slightly higher share of the vote than their job approval ratings. President George W. Bush was at about 50 percent in the RCP average on Election Day 2004 and received 50.7 percent of the vote. President Obama was also around 50 percent and received 51 percent of the vote.
Based on these data, if Trump is at 50 percent or higher in these states, he will likely win reelection no matter who Democrats nominate for 2020. And he’s almost there.
The same analysts who said Trump was irretrievably hurt by the shutdown will surely say he can’t do this. His job approval rating has not been above 45 percent nationally since February 2017. Every time he comes close to that mark, his ratings drop again. They will likely argue there is some magic ceiling on Trump’s support that he just can’t break through.
The problem is we’ve heard all of that before. Similar predictions were made during the Republican primaries and the 2016 general election. Trump was supposedly going to be sunk by his statements after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and his policy of separating refugee children from their parents at the border, to name two such instances. Yet, like the little engine who could, Trump just keeps plugging along.
Trump might not be capable of surmounting that last hurdle. But many analysts seem to be so blinded by their hatred that they just can’t see what’s plainly in front of their noses. Trump wasn’t hurt by the shutdown, just as he wasn’t hurt by similarly transient events. Don’t discount the possibility that he might again shock the political establishment in the coming months.