The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why comparing Trump’s approval with that of past presidents doesn’t say much about 2020

President Trump gives the thumbs-up as he arrives for a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 26. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Earlier this week, President Trump announced proudly to the world (via Twitter, of course) that his approval rating had hit 53 percent. If that number surprises you, it should. It’s from a notoriously Trump-friendly pollster that reflects only people it determines are “likely voters” — and which shows 48 percent approval for Trump, even with those caveats. Nearly every time Trump tweets one of these frequent “look at my approval numbers!” tweets, he’s sharing a number from Rasmussen.

That said, though, Trump’s low approval rating may not be the albatross it seems. As journalist Josh Jordan points out, Trump’s approval in Gallup polling is fairly close to what the past three presidents have seen at this point in their presidencies, and each of them won reelection.

Graphed, it looks like this. Trump’s about where Barack Obama was in September 2011, according to Gallup, for example, and even passed him for a bit.

Those current numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story.

Commentator Liam Donovan responded to Jordan by emphasizing a key point that isolating this moment doesn’t capture.

You can see it on the graph above. There’s a lot more movement for George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even Obama than there is for Trump.

We can visualize that by looking at each Gallup poll over the course of the presidents’ terms in office. Among all Americans, Clinton’s approval ranged over 37 percentage points. Bush’s spanned 66 points — a function of the surge he saw after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama’s approval ranged over 26.

Trump’s approval has spanned 10 points.

Granted, those spreads are over the entirety of each president’s terms in office. Looking only at the period through September of the year before the election, things don’t change much. Clinton’s approval ranged over 23 points (he hit his high after reelection), and Bush’s ranged 41 points (his low came after reelection). Obama’s range to this point was the same as his overall range.

The point is that while Trump’s approval may mirror Clinton’s, Bush’s and Obama’s, all of them had, at some point before this point in the cycle, approval ratings that were significantly higher. Notice the top edges of the boxes in the graph above: Their highs were much higher than Trump’s. One reason to think their approval ratings might rebound is that they had been higher before.

You can see that this is what happened. The vertical dashed lines on the graph above mark each president’s reelection date. Clinton and Obama noticeably improved; Bush did, as well, though it’s hard to see, crossing 50 percent right before the election.

Why wouldn’t we assume that Trump’s approval rating would also spike as the election approaches? Well, it could. But there’s a structural difference to his approval.

Consider approval ratings for each president among members of his own party. We see a similar narrowing of approval ranges, with Trump’s approval among Republicans staying high but only within a 12-point range.

More important, among the opposing party, Trump has seen far less movement. Granted, after about 2010, Obama’s approval rating among Republicans never moved a lot, but Trump never got even a minor honeymoon period from Democrats.

For Obama, the calcification of his approval among Democrats and Republicans as president meant that most of the movement he saw in polling was a function of increasing or dropping support from independents. Here, too, Trump is unusually stable: His approval rating among independents has ranged over 13 points in Gallup polling.

To this point in each president’s term, Trump is an outlier on that metric. Independent approval of Clinton ranged over 31 points through September of the year before his reelection. For Bush it was 46 points, and for Obama, 29. Each had, at some point before now, been more popular with independents and members of the opposing party, allowing them to gain ground before reelection.

Trump is right now about where he has been since inauguration. A few points can make a big difference in presidential elections, but there’s no reason to think that Trump’s going to get more than a few points.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Even in the polls Trump himself has tweeted, his approval has barely moved.