The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump figures that, except for the media, he’d be as popular as FDR during World War II

He would not be.

President Trump on May 24 said without “fake news” his approval rating would be at 75 percent and said even with “fake news” he is “still winning the election." (Video: The Washington Post)
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As he left the White House on Friday for his trip to Japan, President Trump was asked if he thought his approval rating would be higher without the various investigations into his administration and businesses that are underway.

“I don’t know. My poll numbers are very good,” Trump replied. “You don’t like to report them, but I guess we have a 48 today, we have a 51. We have very good poll numbers, considering.”

Let’s jump in here. Trump is claiming, first, that approval from less than half the country is a “very good” number, which seems pretty obviously questionable.

He also cites a poll number — 48 percent — that appears to be a reference to his current approval rating in polling conducted by Rasmussen Reports, a pollster that has consistently determined that Trump’s presidency is more favorably viewed than other pollsters. How much so? On 587 of the 589 days in which Rasmussen polled and RealClearPolitics has generated an average of approval polls, Rasmussen’s value has been higher.

Trump’s approval according to Rasmussen is only 46 percent, anyway. His “we have a 51” appears to refer to a Rasmussen approval rating he had ... on May 2.

None of that is the point of this article.

After pointing out that he was doing well because most Americans didn’t approve of his job performance, Trump explained why those numbers weren’t even higher.

“Now, I have to tell you,” he continued. “If you people would give straight news I’d be at 70, I’d be maybe at 75. But you don’t give straight news, you give fake news. With fake news, I’m still winning the election. But if you gave serious, good news, the way you’re supposed to, I’d probably be at 70 or 75 based on the economy alone.”

Let’s quickly dispatch with the “still winning the election”: In most recent polls, Trump trails nearly every possible Democratic challenger.

But how about that other claim! If it weren’t for the news media, Trump says, he’d be at, say, 75 percent approval. He said something similar earlier this week, claiming that without the Russia investigation, his approval would be at 65 percent because of how well the economy is doing. (It would not be.) Seventy-five percent, though? That’s a historic popularity-level number!

Quite literally. When have presidents been at 75 percent approval in the modern era? Well, there was when Franklin Roosevelt was winning World War II. There was when FDR died and Harry Truman rode a sympathy wave into the White House. There was Dwight Eisenhower’s popular presidency, though even he only peaked over 75 percent on occasion. John Kennedy had 75 percent approval briefly when he took office, as did Lyndon Johnson when he took over after Kennedy’s assassination.

In the past 50 years, though, only two presidents — the Bushes — have hit that level of support. George H.W. Bush topped 75 percent after orchestrating the liberation of Kuwait. His son saw his approval spike after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That was it.

Why is it unlikely Trump will match those numbers? In large part because of how polarized approval polling has become. We pointed this out this earlier this week when we were assessing Trump’s 65 percent claim.

Here’s another way of looking at it. In Gallup polling, Trump’s approval from Republicans has never been below 77 percent. His approval from Democrats has never been above 13 percent. His approval from independents has only ranged from 29 to 42 percent.

So what? Well, when Eisenhower was topping 75 percent approval in the post-World War II economic expansion, the lowest approval he saw from Democrats was 28 percent. Trump hasn’t gotten half that much support.

We saw the same pattern during the Barack Obama administration, too: tepid support from Republicans, strong support from Democrats and most of the movement occurring among independents.

Trump is suggesting that Democratic support has been low because of media coverage of his administration. In one sense, that’s true: The media reports on what Trump is doing, and many Democrats don’t like his actions. As we’ve noted, Trump intentionally focuses on energizing his base, an effort that will often irritate his opponents.

Trump’s suggesting, though, that the media should only report favorably on him (“if you gave serious, good news, the way you’re supposed to”). If they did, he claims, he would hit that 75 percent.

What would it take to hit 75 percent? Well, Gallup tells us that 27 percent of the country identifies as Republican, 26 percent as Democrats and 44 percent as independents. Assuming Republicans hold at 90 percent, if independents approved of Trump at 72 percent and Democrats at 65 percent, Trump would be at 75 percent overall.

That seems unlikely.

How unlikely? Well, remember that Americans have a direct experience with the economy. It’s not as though you need the media to tell you if you can find a job or get a raise. Even with the health of the economy, Democrats still don’t approve of Trump. Even among those who say that they are doing better than they were before Trump took office, nearly half say that they will vote against Trump next year or that they aren’t yet sure how they’ll vote.

That’s because people vote on a lot more than the economy — a factor over which the president has less control than Trump likes to pretend. Instead, voters look at legislation signed into law, executive actions and presidential leadership. Trump’s embrace of conservatives has necessarily meant pushing away liberals. They aren’t going to support his presidency overall just because they might have seen a pay increase.

Trump’s problem is that the media does generally cover him accurately. It’s just that many Americans don’t like what they see.