The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump claims his polls numbers have gone ‘through the roof’ thanks to impeachment. Define ‘roof.’

‘Sat on the floor’ is more accurate.

President Trump on Dec. 13 said the impeachment inquiry is boosting his approval rating and bringing record fundraising for the Republican Party. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Friday morning, President Trump became the third president in modern history to see articles of impeachment against him passed by the House Judiciary Committee. But he’s not mad about it, oh no. In fact, he’s happy! After all, it’s been an unmitigated political boon for him, at least to hear him tell it.

“My poll numbers, as you know, have gone through the roof,” Trump said to reporters at the White House after the vote. “Fundraising for the Republican Party has gone through the roof. We’re setting records. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it. Because the people are disgusted. The people are absolutely disgusted. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”

A bit later, he offered some specific examples.

“It’s a very sad thing for our country, but it seems to be very good for me politically,” he said. “And again, those people — because I watch some of the dishonest, fake media. They’re saying the polls have remained the same. No, the polls have not remained the same. . . . The polls have gone through the roof for Trump — especially with independent voters and especially in swing states.”

Now, if you have been tracking the president since he announced his candidacy in 2015, you will not be surprised to hear that his assessment of the polling is generous to the point of incomprehensibility. In reality, Trump’s poll numbers have stayed largely flat. Trump’s defenders have enjoyed picking out particular polls as showing broad shifts in the electorate, but averages of numerous polls instead show that the effect of the impeachment has been modest — to the Democrats’ chagrin.

Approval rating

We can look first at Trump’s overall approval rating, which might just be made of bedrock for how little it has moved over the course of his presidency.

When the impeachment inquiry was announced in late September, his approval was 44.9 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. On net — his approval minus his disapproval — he was at minus-7.4. There were some modest ups and downs over the next two months, but nothing major. As of writing, his approval is at 43.9 percent (down 1 point) and his net approval is at minus-9.6 (down more than 2 points).

This can correctly be described as “staying the same,” even given those small ups and downs in between. This is not what “through the roof” looks like.

Nor is the shift over a shorter window of time. Relative to the formal vote to launch impeachment on Oct. 31, the same is true. His approval is up 1.4 points since that point, and on net, he’s improved 2.2 points.

Views of impeachment

On the central question, things for Trump are markedly worse.

Looking at FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls measuring support for removing Trump from office shows a big surge since the inquiry began — and relative flatness since.

The overall change since the late-September launch was an increase of 9.2 points in support for impeachment. Among independents, whom Trump identified specifically, support is up 8.8 points. More dramatically, net support for impeachment among both groups rose by double digits, with respondents overall now supporting impeachment more than they oppose it.

You can see some points at which support among independents dropped. Those slips became the focal point of arguments by Trump allies that the impeachment push was collapsing. Again, that support among independents stayed flat is problematic for Democrats. But it’s not the case that support among independents is down over the course of the inquiry. Since the Oct. 31 vote formalizing the inquiry, support for impeachment has indeed been largely flat.

If you were to look at the chart above and identify something going “through the roof,” it would not be Trump’s desired position in the impeachment fight.

2020 polling

Central to the impeachment question, of course, is the 2020 election. Trump’s request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a leading Democratic rival, is at the heart of the charges he faces. Even here, though, Trump’s standing against leading Democrats in a hypothetical 2020 matchup has receded.

Here’s how each top Democratic candidate compares with Trump on Sept. 24, Oct. 31 and now, according to the RealClearPolitics national average for each.

Sept. 24
Oct. 31
D +7.7
D +6.7
D +9.8
D +2
D +3.6
D +4.1
D +4.8
D +6.5
D +8.4
D +4
D +5.7
D +7.2

Democrats are faring better against Trump than they were in late September across the board, though the differences are often subtle. Again, there have been some ups and downs, but the pattern is clear.

Yet another roof that remains unblemished.

Polling in swing states

Of all of the polling Trump did or might have referred to, his case is easiest to make when looking at swing-state polling. Let’s consider the RealClearPolitics averages against Biden in the three states that handed Trump his electoral college win in 2016.

In each case, Biden maintains a lead — but a narrower one than at the launch of the impeachment inquiry.

You’ll notice, though, that the lines are cut short. That’s because the average of polls requires polls, and there aren’t many head-to-head polls in swing states at this point. One effect of that is to make the averages harder to display — but another effect is that it gives more weight to polls that do exist.

So in Wisconsin, for example, there has been a narrowing in the margin between Trump and Biden since August according to the Marquette Law School poll.

Aug. 25–29 (pre-inquiry)
Biden +9
Oct. 13–17 (post-inquiry)
Biden +6
Nov. 13–17 (post-formal vote)
Trump +3
Dec. 3–8
Biden +1

A shift from Biden being up nine points to Trump being up three points is large — but not statistically significant given the margin of error. Since that point, Biden has regained the advantage — though that change isn’t significant either. This is one advantage of polling averages: By looking at multiple overlapping polls, certainty increases. Here, we make do with what we have, and Marquette, at least, seems to show some movement in Trump’s direction.

We can therefore offer an evaluation of Trump’s claim. The impeachment inquiry is not prompting his poll numbers to go “through the roof.” For the most part, they’re fairly flat. There may be some movement in swing states in Trump’s direction, but it’s hard to tell given the paucity of polling.

It’s also possible that Trump is referring to polls conducted by his campaign or — like the ones that consistently show him with 95 percent approval among Republicans — ones he may well have made up. In which case, sure, they’re going through the roof, in the same way that you can win a footrace against Usain Bolt anytime you want if you get to pick who plays Usain Bolt.