Why Trump’s Approval Ratings Hold Firm

His supporters have already heard almost every imaginable bad thing about him and don’t believe negative stories in the mainstream media.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

Earlier this week, a friend who leans decidedly Democratic was euphoric over news reports that one of the president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., along with his son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, met last June with a Russian lawyer after Trump Jr. was told that she had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was gathered by the Russian government. Despite an email exchange widely viewed as showing “collusion” with the Russian government, I assured this friend that the disclosure would not likely affect President Trump’s job-approval ratings much, at least not anytime soon.

As a longtime student of polls, and having worked as a pollster long ago, I find the phenomenon of Donald Trump quite interesting. Using the Gallup Organization’s daily tracking polls and weekly compilations of presidential approval ratings, I calculate that the default setting for the president’s public approval seems to be 39 or 40 percent in polls among all adults, usually a few points higher if the sample is limited to registered voters.

On good days, he might tick up ever so slightly to 41 percent or 42 percent in Gallup among adults, on bad days down to 37 or so, but his approval rating always reverts to the mean of 39 or 40 percent. For the most recent full week, July 3-9, it was 38 percent approve and 57 percent disapprove, and in the most recent three-day average, July 10-12, 36 percent approved 59 percent disapproved. For his 24 weeks in office thus far, Trump’s approval in the Gallup Poll has never dropped below 37 percent in the weekly aggregations, and the only times it was 43 percent or higher was Feb. 27-March 5 and Jan. 30-Feb. 5 (both 43 percent) and his first week in office, Jan. 20-29 at 45 percent (a couple of days were added because he was sworn in at midweek). In individual three-night samplings, his approval hit 46 percent twice, both times in his first month in office, and his lowest approval was 35 percent in late March.

One simple explanation is this: The people who support Trump have heard almost every imaginable ugly thing about him, but support him anyway and approve of the job he is doing. Nothing new is likely to change that. With the 55 or so percent who disapprove of him, there is very little, if anything, they could hear that will raise their esteem. Both sides have hardened into political concrete, and there are very few malleable opinions.

Gallup asks just the basic approve-disapprove question. Some other pollsters try to measure intensity, asking those who approve whether they strongly or only somewhat approve and those who disapprove whether they strongly or only somewhat disapprove. In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted June 17-20 among 900 adults, the overall approval rating was 40 percent, with 25 percent approving strongly and 15 percent approving only somewhat strongly. The overall disapprove was 55 percent, with 10 percent only somewhat disapproving and 45 percent strongly disapproving.

The online Survey Monkey tracking for the week of June 30 through July 6 showed an overall approval rating of 43 percent, with a disapproval of 55 percent among 12,338 adults. Among 11,066 registered voters, 46 percent approved and 54 percent disapproved. In the latter sample, 27 percent strongly approved of Trump, 19 percent somewhat approved, 10 percent somewhat disapproved, and 43 percent strongly disapproved (figures vary by a point due to rounding).

Because the intensity of opposition to Trump is greater than the intensity of his support, it is difficult for him to gain ground, even under the best of circumstances. Looking at the NBC/WSJ survey, of all of the people who approved of Trump’s performance (40 percent), 63 percent felt strongly in their feelings about him; of those who disapproved of him, 82 percent felt strongly. In the Survey Monkey poll, of the 43 percent who approved, 59 percent expressed strong approval, and of the 55 percent who disapproved, 80 percent did so strongly. Those attitudes are not likely to be influenced much by day-to-day events, even those that would be devastating to ordinary politicians.

Part of the reason for these static attitudes is partisanship, but views of Trump are also influenced by the increasing bifurcation of news consumption. Before cable and the internet, the term “trusted news source” was reserved for network TV anchors like CBS News’s Walter Cronkite, NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and ABC’s Frank Reynolds, Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, and Peter Jennings. The networks did not differ greatly in the way they delivered the news; the choice of anchors was simply a matter of personal preference.

Today, though, many news consumers gravitate toward news outlets that tend to tell them what they want to hear. Those who tune in to Rachel Maddow have a different expectation of what they will hear than those who watch Sean Hannity. The news they get from these ideologically different sources reinforces their preconceived opinions.

So if you want to hear bad things about Trump, you know where to tune in, and if you don’t want to hear bad things about him, you also know where to go. On top of that, many Republicans, particularly conservatives and Trump supporters, simply don’t believe anything they hear from the mainstream media, providing Trump even more insulation from negative stories—and keeping his base steady.

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