Very little about the government shutdown is funny, but we should savor the exceptions. Jared Kushner’s confidence that the polling about the partial shutdown would swing significantly in President Trump’s direction certainly falls into that category. Even last week, the polling suggested that this was false. FiveThirtyEight’s Janie Velencia noted on Wednesday: “Trump’s efforts to pin the blame on Democrats aren’t working, according to three pollsters who have conducted at least two polls in the two and a half weeks since the government first closed. Rather, polls show that Americans are increasingly blaming Trump.”
Since then, the numbers have gotten worse for Trump.
During the weekend, polls came out from both CNN and The Washington Post-ABC News, both of which show grim top-line numbers for Trump. CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta reports that “the public generally is more apt to blame the President, with 55% saying he is more responsible for the shutdown than are Democrats in Congress, while 32% say the blame rests mostly with the Democrats.” The Post’s Scott Clement and Dan Balz report similar numbers from the Post-ABC poll: “53 percent say Trump and the Republicans are mainly at fault, and 29 percent blame the Democrats in Congress.” Both surveys also show majority opposition for building a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and CNN shows a dismally low 37 percent approval rating for Trump, with 57 percent disapproving.
What should really scare Trump is that, according to Agiesta, “the increase in disapproval for the President comes primarily among whites without college degrees, 45% of whom approve and 47% disapprove, marking the first time his approval rating with this group has been underwater in CNN polling since February 2018."
Politico’s Marianne Levine and John Bresnahan offer a dire write-up for the GOP: “President Donald Trump and Republicans are losing the messaging war on the government shutdown. … Trump’s message on the shutdown — blaming Democrats for refusing to concede on his border wall — isn’t convincing the American public.”
To sum up the numbers in tweet form:
Traditionally, in shutdown politics, the party with the eroding poll numbers is the one to make the greater concessions. So, that’s that. The White House will be caving any day now, right?
Alas, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is now convinced that the answer is no.
Trying to predict what Trump will do is a fool’s errand, especially because Trump approaches the shutdown from a place that a generous observer would best describe as a strategy-free zone. Of course, that is one reason he will be less likely to concede. Kellyanne Conway can throw bad numbers around all she likes, but Trump is really good at not listening.
Even beyond that, however, a deeper cut into the polling data would give a Trump whisperer such as Stephen Miller some reasons to hope that maybe things will turn around. To be clear, I am not saying that these are good reasons. Some of them are very debatable. But they are at least grounded in some kind of polling reality that even non-Trumpists would have to acknowledge.
From a Trumpian perspective, there are four reasons buried in the polling numbers for the president to persist in his status quo strategy of holding out. In descending order of validity:
1) The wall is unpopular, but declaring a national emergency to fund the wall is super unpopular. According to the Post-ABC poll, “by more than 2-1 (66 percent to 31 percent), Americans say they oppose invoking an emergency to build a border wall. The poll finds 51 percent say they strongly oppose such a declaration.” The wall itself is polling at 54 percent opposed and 42 percent support. So although the wall itself is underwater by 12 points, using emergency powers to try to bypass Congress is underwater by 35 points. That, plus mounting opposition in the Senate, should be enough to persuade even Trump not to do it, which eliminates the “out” that some had hoped would end the stalemate.
2) Public opposition to the wall is softening. I have paid close attention to the polling numbers on the wall, and the latest data show a minor shift in the president’s direction. The Post-ABC survey reveals that the gap in support for the wall has narrowed in the past year: “Today, 42 percent say they support a wall, up from 34 percent last January. A slight majority of Americans (54 percent) oppose the idea, down from 63 percent a year ago.” CNN’s numbers are not as friendly to the president, but even they show about a five-point swing in pro-wall support. There is still majority opposition, but this movement might be enough to convince the Trump White House that future polling will shift even more in its direction.
3) Trump still has his base. The primary reason the numbers regarding the wall have improved for Trump is the Republicans: GOP “backing for Trump’s long-standing campaign promise jumped 16 points in the past year, from 71 percent to 87 percent," Clement and Balz reported. "Not only has GOP support increased, it has also hardened.” The whole reason Trump triggered the shutdown in the first place was a fear of losing his base, and he has succeeded in keeping that support. To be clear, that is the only support he has, because everyone else is peeling off. But for the past two years, this is the only segment of the U.S. population he has cared about politically.
4) Democrats are more keen to compromise. From Clement and Balz’s precis of the Post-ABC poll:
Overall, Democrats appear somewhat more conciliatory than Republicans. The poll finds that 42 percent of Democrats who oppose the wall say congressional Democrats should refuse to budge even if it extends the shutdown; 37 percent say they should compromise with Trump. Among Republicans, 58 percent both support the wall and say Trump should continue to demand funding, compared with 22 percent who say he should compromise to end the shutdown.
Trump acolytes can easily look at these numbers and conclude that their side can hold out longer.
Again, I am not saying that these are great arguments. I seriously doubt support for the wall will go up any further — Trump has probably maxed out his receptive audience. Furthermore, these polls were taken after Trump’s prime-time address; it seems unlikely that additional stagecraft will work. And the shutdown has galvanized Democrats more than Republicans.
Still, Trump lives in his own little bubble. Looking at the polling numbers, one does not need to distort reality too much to persuade Trump to stay the course. For now.