The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is the most polarizing president on record — and almost nobody’s opinion of him is changing

A supporter of President Trump in front of a Border Patrol station on Jan. 12 in San Ysidro, Calif. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones put things succinctly.

“Extreme partisan views of presidents are the new norm in politics,” he wrote in presenting new data on the partisan gulf in approval of President Trump. “The past 15 presidential years account for 14 of the top 15 most polarized years since Gallup began regularly measuring both job approval and party identification in the 1950s.”

The exception? 1996, when President Bill Clinton had an approval rating of 85 percent from Democrats and 24 percent from Republicans. To which the natural reaction is: His approval rating among Republicans was that high?

Since 2010, the average presidential approval rating from an opposing party in a year hasn’t topped 13 percent — and that was in 2010, when President Barack Obama’s approval rating was still slipping from his post-inauguration high.

The gap now is 79 points, 21 points shy of the maximum possible gap.

Who knows. Maybe we’ll get there.

But there’s another interesting aspect to Trump’s approval ratings that is worth isolating. The gap in 2017, according to Gallup, was only slightly narrower. Unlike Obama, Trump didn’t enjoy a period of broader support at the time of his inauguration. Views of Trump have been remarkably consistent by party since he took office.

There’s some movement, but not a lot. Data released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University make that clear. In Quinnipiac’s first poll of Trump’s favorability, taken less than a week after his inauguration, about a fifth of Americans had no opinion of his job performance. In the next poll, taken in early February 2017, 42 percent approved of his performance (including 88 percent of Republicans), and 51 percent disapproved (including 90 percent of Democrats). In Tuesday’s poll? Forty-one percent approve (including 86 percent of Republicans), and 55 percent disapprove (including 93 percent of Democrats).

What’s more, we’d normally expect some movement within those groups, as people who strongly supported the president became less enthusiastic or those who opposed him a bit grew more fervent. But while there are some isolated examples of shifts within each group in Quinnipiac’s polling, how strongly people view Trump has been steady over the course of the presidency.

We can look at this another way. Here are the distributions in Quinnipiac polling among those saying they approve or disapprove of him strongly or only somewhat. Among each partisan group, the various poll options are tightly clustered.

Overall, the range of people saying they strongly approve of Trump’s job performance has covered only 10 points, from 23 to 33 percent. The range of those who strongly disapprove has stayed within 15 points.

This is another interesting aspect of Trump’s approval ratings: More poll respondents have strong views of his presidency, positive or negative, relative to any recent president. On average, 73 percent of respondents in Post-ABC News polls taken during his presidency have had a strongly approving or disapproving view of Trump, nearly 10 points higher than in Post-ABC polls taken during George W. Bush’s or Obama’s presidencies.

(Clearly noticeable on that chart: The two Bushes' foreign-policy boosts. George H.W. Bush’s surge during the first Gulf War and his son’s in the post-9/11 period.)

It’s unclear how much of this gulf is a function of Trump and how much is a function of the moment. Toward the end of his presidency, Obama engendered similarly strong opinions. From 2010 onward, his poll numbers were also relatively static. It’s safe to assume that any president would see a big partisan divide — but also that Trump, in particular, is seeing an unusually wide gap.

That question of how much of the gap is a function of Trump himself is likely to be answered in either early 2021 or early 2025.