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Unfortunately for both supporters and critics of President Trump, the primary story told by polling since he took office is one of stagnation. Trump’s approval rating has moved within a narrower range than that of any president in the era of modern polling, never lower than 35 percent support in Gallup’s polling and never higher than 46 percent. There has been movement, of course: Trump’s approval dipped in the first summer of his presidency and again at the end of last year during the government shutdown. But each time it came back up, about to where it was in the first place. Overall it’s just little fluctuations, small waves on a calm sea.
That’s inconvenient, because we’re used to polling telling a story. A president does something and the polls do something in response and blammo, we’ve got a narrative. But Trump’s presidency hasn’t really worked like that. However laudatory or egregious you may think Trump’s behavior has been, his approval has stayed in the same place. That’s not because of indifference, of course; quite the contrary. It’s because sharp partisan views of Trump from the outset fried the circuits, with approval of Trump barely changing because strongly held views of Trump have barely changed.
That doesn’t stop people from trying to read into poll numbers, Trump included. Small movement is conflated with important movement, and the supposed import of that movement is wrung out into fundraising emails and presidential tweets.
But Trump has repeatedly gone further, not just presenting small (or no) movement as significant. In recent months, he’s apparently invented poll results out of whole cloth, completing the disconnection between poll data and significance. If the polls don’t show the point you’re trying to make, the thinking seems to be, why not just make up the polls?
On Monday morning, he offered some thoughts about polling on impeachment.
That tweet echoed one from Sunday, in which he declared that “polls have now turned very strongly against Impeachment, especially in swing states.” Polling now showed that only 25 percent of those surveyed supported impeachment, according to his tweet.
In neither tweet did Trump share a link to the polling showing those numbers, perhaps because there is no evidence that they exist.
Polling on impeachment has, in reality, been fairly steady. After a spike in support for impeaching Trump and removing him from office shortly after the impeachment inquiry was announced in late September, support for impeachment and removal dropped a bit — but only a bit. A seven-day average of high-quality polling compiled by FiveThirtyEight shows the relative stability of polling on impeachment and removal. (Support for impeachment alone is slightly higher across the board.)
There have been a number of articles in recent days cherry-picking specific polls to show declines favorable to Trump or lifting up things such as a two-point change in Gallup’s polling to argue that the impeachment inquiry is making him more popular. As Gallup itself notes, Trump’s “approval rating remains statistically similar to where it has been for weeks.”
Mind you, the polling above isn’t great for Democrats, either. The party was hoping that the launch of public impeachment hearings earlier this month would shift public opinion. It hasn’t.
It’s possible that Trump has internal polling conducted by his reelection campaign or the Republican Party showing approval in the 20s among some constituencies. But that seems unlikely. Even in red states such as Louisiana, support for impeaching Trump tops 30 percent overall. Swing states, by definition, have a decent density of Democrats, and Democrats broadly think Trump should be kicked out of office.
Beyond that, a good reason to think that Trump is making up the poll numbers is that he keeps inventing poll numbers in other contexts. When Gov. Matt Bevin (R-Ky.) narrowly lost his reelection bid this month, Trump declared that Bevin was actually down by double-digits — something not actually indicated in polling — and that Trump himself had therefore helped close the gap.
On Saturday, Trump reiterated a more ridiculous claim he’s made numerous times in recent months.
We looked at this claim at the beginning of the month, when, according to Trump, his approval was also at 95 percent with Republicans. There was no evidence for the claim then, and there is no evidence for it now. The big giveaway on this one is that Trump, always looking to showing increasing success, has slowly cranked up his purported approval within his own party.
In February, it was 93 percent. In mid-July, he started saying it was 94 percent. That lasted until late September, when the impeachment inquiry began. Then, suddenly, he was up to 95 percent, where it has purportedly stayed.
There are a lot of funny parts to that, including that a 93-to-95 percent increase is not statistically significant. But it’s also funny that Trump left himself so little room to grow. One can easily envision a tweet shortly before Election Day next year in which Trump explains how it is both possible to have 101 percent approval and that he has achieved that goal.
The president’s relationship with polling has evolved significantly, reflecting his perceptions of his political strength. In the Republican primary, he touted legitimate polls constantly, since they showed him leading by increasing margins. When he won the nomination, he stopped talking about them, since they consistently showed him trailing. At times he’d go further, suggesting that polling showing him trailing Hillary Clinton nationally were erroneous or biased. As president, he began cherry-picking polls, tweeting out polls from friendly pollsters showing him with above-average approval ratings. There have been dozens of variations of tweets just like this one, for example.
Note the trajectory though: doing well, embrace reality. Mired in unpopularity, cherry-pick. And now: face an existential threat to the presidency — albeit a remote one — make things up. As we’ve noted before, he needs Republicans to think that he’s popular with Republicans and that there’s a political price to be paid for crossing him, so he cherry-picks or outright creates poll numbers making that point.
The reality of the polling hasn’t changed. Trump is popular with Republicans and not popular with Democrats — and while independents don’t really like him, they’re lukewarm on impeachment.
The reality of the politics hasn’t changed, either, to the Democrats’ consternation. If and when Trump is impeached and then acquitted by the Senate, it will not be because Republicans believe his made-up poll numbers. It will be because the poll numbers reflect the stagnation in partisanship in the country, partisanship that will almost certainly keep Republicans from betraying Trump.