Well, apparently not. Most of those people who didn’t view Trump as qualified voted for Hillary Clinton or didn’t vote. But exit polling conducted on Election Day found that of the 61 percent of voters who didn’t think Trump was qualified, nearly a fifth voted for Trump anyway. This was certainly in part because of skepticism about Clinton. But it was also a function of partisanship. Republicans may not have particularly cared for Trump, but he was the Republican candidate in a presidential election and here we are. Candidates who aren’t seen as able to be president can be elected president. Who knew!
The question that emerges now is how that holds in 2020. Will ongoing skepticism of Trump — and ongoing disapproval of his presidency — prove to be prohibitive? Will running against a Democratic candidate who might be more positively viewed than Clinton shift the calculus?
On Sunday, NBC News and its polling partners at the Wall Street Journal released the results of a poll that assesses an important aspect to that question. How much of Trump’s support derives from people who don’t particularly like him?
The answer? A lot. About 44 percent of those surveyed said that they approved of most of Trump’s policies. Of that group, a bit under half said that they nonetheless dislike him personally. Among those who disapprove of Trump’s policies, there was more unanimity. Nearly everyone who disapproves of his policies also dislikes him.
Over the course of his presidency, these numbers have gotten a bit worse for Trump. In February 2017, shortly after Trump took office, about 38 percent of respondents in NBC-Journal polling said they liked Trump personally, a figure that’s now at 29 percent. Back then, only 43 percent of the full respondent pool said they both disapproved of Trump and disliked him personally. Now, half do.
We’re so mired in the current state of politics that this may not seem that abnormal. Of course people who disapprove of the president don’t like him. Isn’t that normal?
It hasn’t been. In August 2011, for example — at about the same point in Barack Obama’s first term as Trump is now — 70 percent of respondents viewed Obama himself favorably, though about half of that group disapproved of his policies. Fully a third of the respondents to that poll said they disapproved of Obama’s policies but still liked the president. In the most recent poll, only 4 percent of respondents held those opinions of Trump.
Even George W. Bush was generally liked. In March 2006, when his approval rating had permanently settled into the 30s thanks to the Iraq War, more than half of Americans nonetheless said they liked Bush personally. Even at that point, nearly twice as many respondents in NBC’s poll said they liked Bush than now say that of Trump.
Part of this, too, is about partisanship. Negative views of each party have hardened among the opposition, with Democrats and Republicans increasingly likely in recent years to view their opponents unfavorably or as a threat to the country itself.
But a lot of it is about Trump. Trump has been overt in focusing on Republican policy priorities as president, doing little to try to expand his coalition of support. At the same time, he takes a uniquely toxic approach to politics, attacking critics and opponents in starkly personal terms that chafe even many of his supporters. We regularly talk about how polarized presidential approval has come to be, but, as the polling above suggests, opinions of the presidents hadn’t been similarly split. (In December 2013, when Obama’s approval was near its low for his presidency, a majority of Americans still said they liked him personally.)
One perspective on these figures is that they won’t matter in 2020 — that voters presented with Trump on the ballot will set aside any personal distaste in favor of the policies he espouses. This, though, is the sort of sweeping assumption that ignores the specifics of the 2016 contest. Yes, Trump won — but only barely. In a race against an almost equally unpopular Democrat, a race in which many voters (and observers) believed the Democrat would win easily, Trump narrowly edged out a win among voters hopeful he’d reshape the country.
So how will people who voted for Trump in 2016 who feel as though that reshaping didn’t happen, who are presented with a Democrat who isn’t Hillary Clinton, and who simply don’t like Trump personally vote? It’s a question that could define next year’s contest. And it’s one for which we don’t yet have an answer.