Something big happened to President Trump this week, and it’s not the Ukraine scandal. His job approval ratings have returned to where they were before his big August slump — and that’s bad news for the Democrats.

Trump clearly had a terrible late summer. Starting with his tweet that the four progressive Democratic House members who call themselves “the Squad” should “go back” to the countries they purportedly were from (only one of the four, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, is an immigrant), Trump’s job approval ratings declined significantly. From a pre-tweet high of 45.1 percent in the RealClearPolitics average on July 8, Trump’s ratings dropped more than two points before bottoming out at 42.7 percent earlier this month. That’s a terrible rating for a president barely more than a year out from reelection.

But now that Congress has returned and he’s no longer engaged in a battle with Democratic women of color, his ratings are up. They sit at 45.3 percent as of Tuesday afternoon, thanks to a recent Emerson Poll putting Trump’s approval rating at 48 percent, a 2½-year high for Trump. He’s still lower than a president should be if he wants to be reelected, but he’s on the way back.

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This suggests a few things: First, Trump gets in trouble when he picks racially divisive fights. Some may argue it excites his base, but it’s clear that it turns off a key segment of his supporters — people who will be the difference between victory and defeat next fall. If Trump can resist the bait to engage in such battles over the coming months — admittedly, a very big “if” — he will take a crucial step toward securing reelection.

Second, he has enduring appeal to about 45 percent of the electorate as long as the economy hums along and we’re at peace with the world. Think about all the bad news Trump has endured and the controversies he has engendered recently. There’s news of possible war with Iran, the ongoing trade war with China has raised fears of recession, and he had yet another high-profile departure from his administration with national security adviser John Bolton’s resignation this month. Yet here he is, on the upswing, when almost all of the news has been bad. That’s a good sign for the president.

People need to remember that Trump does not need to win the popular vote to get reelected. All he has to do is win the electoral college, and he can do that without having to worry about whom the Democrats nominate if he can get his job approval ratings up to about 47 percent. That’s because the opposition to Trump is centered in states such as California and New York that will vote Democratic anyway, driving his national numbers down without affecting the electoral college. In 2018, the national exit polls gave Trump a 45 percent job approval rating, but state exit polls showed he was at 48 percent or above in enough states to get the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. It stands to reason that if he can raise his job approval rating by just two more points, he’ll be at 50 percent or more in those states — and that means he’ll win no matter whom the Democrats nominate.

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It’s also not hard to see how Trump can work to do that. He can stop the racially divisive tweets and comments and show more openness to racial minorities, as he has done recently with his rally in New Mexico and his appearance at the “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston. He can focus on the economy, both in continuing the trade war with China (his voters think it’s worth some temporary pain to change our trading relationship) and in working to alleviate the distress his tariffs will cause. He can work to bring one of the many global disputes to a successful fruition and avoid war if none of our adversaries offers a good deal. And he can work to paint the Democratic Party and its eventual nominee as crazed socialists.

There’s pretty much nothing Democrats can do to stop him pursuing the first three objectives. And one look at their presidential debates suggests they are not doing a good job avoiding the “crazed socialist” tag, either.

None of this means Trump is a lock to win. His notorious indiscipline and impulsiveness have tripped him up before, and they could do so again. But it’s got to trouble anti-Trump advocates that they have thrown everything they have against him in a relentless display of mean-spirited vitriol, and he is still polling highly enough to entertain a realistic hope of winning.

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The president always sits in the driver’s seat during a reelection year. We’re about to see whether Trump can take advantage of that and steer a course home to victory.

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