It defies any reasonable logic. But it doesn’t really defy political logic. This crisis is very likely not going to be enough to fundamentally change the dynamics of Trump’s uniquely polarizing presidency, and what we’re seeing now doesn’t present any reason for thinking otherwise.
Let’s start with where we are. The new Post/ABC News poll shows Trump’s approval rating in net-positive territory for the first time, at 48 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval. Gallup puts him at 49 percent. The RealClearPolitics average puts him at 47 percent, while the FiveThirtyEight average pegs him at 46 percent.
First, let’s note that this increase in Trump’s approval is relatively small, given that we’re in the midst of one of the most monumental crises in American history.
In such extraordinary circumstances, the president’s approval would normally be shooting up. At times like these, Americans are looking for comfort. They want to believe that the president and the government are in control.
When Lyndon B. Johnson took over after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, his approval rating was 78 percent, even though he hadn’t done anything yet. Likewise, Gerald Ford had a 71 percent approval upon taking office during Watergate; it didn’t fall until he pardoned Richard M. Nixon. (We’re using Gallup’s historical data.)
Before Iran took 52 Americans hostages, Jimmy Carter’s approval was at 32 percent. It quickly shot up more than 20 points after the hostages were taken, and it stayed there for a couple months, despite the fact that his decision to welcome the Shah into the U.S. directly precipitated the hostage crisis.
And after 9/11, George W. Bush’s approval soared to 90 percent. This is the historical pattern: In times of crisis, the president’s approval will go up almost regardless of whether he’s doing a good job or not.
So if in the midst of a public health nightmare and a horrific looming recession, Trump’s approval goes up by a few points, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of his presidency.
Improvements in Trump’s approval will likely remain relatively constrained compared to those historical standards, because as everyone knows, we’re in a period of intense polarization. There are fewer so-called “real” independents (who don’t actually lean to one party), and nearly all those who do associate with a party will never give thumbs up to a presidential candidate from the other party.
Beyond this, the dynamics of this particular situation make it unlikely that Trump will undergo a magical political transformation.
Remember that Trump has been consistently unpopular in an unprecedented way. (He’s the only president in the history of polling never to crack 50 percent approval.) And, relatedly, he has been widely assumed to have a reasonable shot at reelection mainly because of the strong economy.
Those two things mean that what is likely to come next will matter greatly.
It’s possible that through Trump’s brilliant leadership we’ll quickly vanquish the virus and the economy will then bounce right back. But it appears more likely we’re heading for a mounting death toll and serious, sustained economic hardship.
If so, the current state of stunned public anxiety would give away to a more acute sense of suffering and dissatisfaction. And that would likely end whatever rallying effect he’s enjoying now, and perhaps reverse it.
Dramatic reversals have historical precedent. After 9/11 and a solid reelection victory, Bush entered into a second term dominated by Hurricane Katrina, an economic crisis and a seemingly endless war in Iraq. His approval rating fell to the 20s, after many had concluded he was politically invincible.
However, just as Trump’s approval is not likely to rise that much, it’s also likely not to fall that much, either. The whole public isn’t going to rally behind him or turn on him as one. Trump is unlikely to either surge or plummet.
What’s more, built-in perceptions of Trump will remain. As Aaron Blake notes, the new Post/ABC poll showing Trump’s approval rising also finds a large majority — 58 percent — think Trump reacted too slowly to the crisis. If things go seriously south, then that built-in sense that Trump botched the early response could compound public blame going forward, particularly since he’ll likely keep up with the depraved public spectacles.
Now, there is a real danger here: Trump’s approval could lead some Democrats to conclude that criticizing Trump’s coronavirus response is too risky. Some already want to conclude this: As one outside adviser to Joe Biden’s campaign put it to Ryan Lizza: "I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now.”
In response to our questions, the Biden campaign told us its view is that, if anything, the rallying-around-Trump effect is small relative to that in other countries; that we’re in early days of the current crisis; that Trump’s failures have put us in extreme peril; and that it’s imperative to keep making an aggressive case against those failures, particularly as their consequences keep mounting.
"Trump ignored repeated warnings from his top scientific and intelligence experts while misleading the American people about the grievous threat we faced,“ Biden spokesman Andrew Bates told us. “He failed to make the aggressive preparations that other nations did. As a result, we now have more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world.”
“This is historic malpractice that the entire country is paying the price for,” Bates continued.
Now, none of this means that if the crisis does worsen, Trump will inevitably lose reelection. He could very well win anyway, because it could run its course by November and, as noted, we don’t expect him to drop by very much, either.
Which means the campaign will likely be a brutal, hard-fought, unpredictable slog all the way through. Just as it always was going to be.