Reeling from a CNN poll showing him trailing former vice president Joe Biden by 14 points, President Trump on Sunday and Monday resuscitated a core argument he made during the 2016 campaign. He’s supported by more than half of the country, Trump insists — but some of those supporters refuse to tell anyone about it.
THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 14, 2020
That phrasing, the “silent majority,” is lifted from a speech given by President Richard Nixon early in his first term. Nixon was rejecting the idea that the vocal protests objecting to the conflict in Vietnam represented the actual sentiment of the American public. Even by that point, polling indicated that a plurality of Americans objected to the war, though Nixon was right that most Americans weren’t taking to the streets about it.
Trump’s framing is even more disconnected from reality. He’s not asserting that most Americans reject a vocal position; he has repeatedly claimed that polls are wrong and that most Americans support him, will vote for him and/or approve of the job he’s doing. That’s the silent majority Trump points to, a flood of people whose views simply aren’t reflected in polling.
What’s remarkable about this claim isn’t only that it lacks any evidence. What’s remarkable is that Trump has never, on any metric, demonstrated any actual majority support.
Take Gallup approval polling, for example. Every other president since modern polling has existed has, at some point, enjoyed majority approval from the public. Trump hasn’t.
In RealClearPolitics’s averages of polling, a broader look at views of the president, Trump’s approval has similarly never been at or above 50 percent. But it extends further than that. Trump has also never had 50 percent favorability in RealClearPolitics’s average. He has never polled at or above 50 percent in either of his presidential races, either against Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Biden this year. Both Clinton and Biden have had support over 50 percent against Trump.
Trump is nonetheless the president, of course, but it’s clearly not because he had the support of the majority of Americans in 2016. He didn’t even have the support of the plurality of voters in 2016, losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2 million votes.
It is the case that there have been individual polls which, at times, have shown Trump’s approval over 50 percent. Trump will often highlight those results, repeatedly tweeting out something like this:
But then he’ll tweet the same thing a few weeks or months later. And then the same thing a few weeks later again. The impression that’s given isn’t that Trump is consistently popular. It’s that, like an unfortunate passenger on the Titanic, every once in a while he manages to get his head above water and shout something out. You can’t keep occasionally hitting 50 percent approval unless the rest of the time you’re submerged. (See also: Trump’s tweets about the Dow Jones industrial average hitting 25,000.)
What’s more, the polls that have shown him above 50 percent approval tend to be ones that rely on voter pools that consistently favor Republican candidates.
Trump’s approval among Republicans is well above 50 percent, but Republicans make up only about a third of voters in the country. That’s the asterisk that applies to the 2016 Republican primaries, as well; those polls were only of Republicans.
Of course, he never hit 50 percent in RealClearPolitics’s average in the primaries that year, either. In fact, Trump is the first modern president to be elected without winning a majority of either the primary or general-election vote. Barack Obama got less than half of the Democratic primary vote in 2008, but won a majority of the vote that November. In 1992, Bill Clinton got less than half of the vote in the general, but more than half in the primary.
At the heart of Trump’s insistence that he has majority support is rejecting the reams of evidence to the contrary. It is based on believing that some large fraction of the public simply refuses to tell pollsters — real people or interactive polling systems — that they support the president: The 2016 vote is somehow not representative of how America broadly feels about him, and the 2020 vote will somehow be significantly different.
What Trump continues to rely upon the most for support in that regard are friendly pollsters and media outlets that position him as popular in a way that he isn’t. Like One America News simply inventing good poll results or outlets like Just the News, founded by conservative reporter John Solomon, publishing a poll showing Trump leading Biden by 12 points.
Oh, sorry. That poll had Biden up by 12. No doubt the Trump campaign will launch a lawsuit against Just the News, as it did against CNN last week. After all, Trump does have the support of a silent majority of the country, assuming your definition of “majority” has a very wide margin of error.