Off to the Races

Tracking Trump’s Unusual Poll Patterns

Presidents usually enjoy an initial honeymoon period, then experience a steady decline in their approval ratings. Trump’s numbers started off low, and have moved relatively little.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

It should not be a surprise that this most unconventional of presidents might have a nontraditional pattern of job-approval ratings over his first 16 months in office.

With the summit meeting between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un now cancelled, it will be interesting to watch the next round of national polls to see whether Trump’s job-approval rating remains about the same, suggesting a new normal; retreats a bit with the disappointing news on Korea; or continues to rise, perhaps driven by steadily good economic news.

To recap, Trump never got the honeymoon that most new Oval Office occupants get. After his first week in office, his first Gallup job-approval rating was 45 percent and the same share disapproved, a point lower than his share of the overall national popular vote. By comparison, despite having also lost the popular vote and having the election effectively settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, George W. Bush’s first job-approval rating was 57 percent, with 25 percent disapproval. Clearly a fair number of people who voted against Bush were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt or hoped their new president would do well; the same could be said for Barack Obama’s first-week approval rating of 68 percent and Bill Clinton’s 58 percent.

But the lack of a honeymoon means that the inevitable downward slope that presidents usually see in their first two years in office, heading into the midterm election, might not happen the same way for Trump. He’s had a decline less steep than normal and more likely to fit into an ebb and flow dependent upon events, rather than a relatively constant slide. For the first quarter of 2017, Trump’s Gallup overall approval rating was 41 percent; it dropped 2 points to 39 percent for the second quarter and another 2 points to 37 percent for the third and fourth quarters of last year—9 points below his share of the national popular vote, and 8 points below his initial job rating.

It’s reasonably safe to assume that some of that decline was among Republicans and other Trump voters who had high hopes that he would deliver on his four big goals: to repeal and replace Obamacare, build a border wall, implement a national infrastructure plan, and cut taxes. Going into December, the record was 0-4, and not unexpectedly we saw Trump’s approval rating among Republicans drop down to the 77 to 83 percent range for each week of Gallup polling in the fourth quarter of last year. With passage of the tax cuts in December, Trump’s numbers among Republicans picked up appreciably, to a range of 81-90 percent for each week since the beginning of this year. Indeed, it has been 84 percent or higher among Republicans for 14 of the 19 weeks this year. Support for tax cuts unifies GOP voters more than just about anything else.

Among independents, since the second week of February of last year, Trump’s weekly Gallup approval ratings have been in the 30s for 66 out of 67 weeks. Similarly, Trump’s approval ratings among Democrats have been in the mid-to-high single digits in 59 of 69 weeks since he took office. Seven of the 10 double-digit approvals among Democrats occurred in his first three months in office, and the remaining three have been within the last five weeks. So he’s had little meaningful decline among independents or Democrats over the last 16 months.

For the week ending May 20, Trump’s Gallup approval rating was 42 percent, down a point from the previous week, with a disapproval of 54 percent, up 2 points from the week of May 7-13. His latest approval rating among Republicans was 89 percent, up 5 points from the previous week; 38 percent among independents, up 3 points from the previous week; and 9 percent among Democrats, down 3 points from the week before.

On the generic congressional ballot test, RealClearPolitics’s poll average showed Democrats up by 3.4 points, 44.2 to 40.8 percent, while FiveThirtyEight’s average, which weights by past accuracy of each poll, has the Democratic edge a bit wider at 4.7 points, 45.1 to 40.4 percent. It’s generally thought that Democrats need to win the national popular vote by between 6 and 8 points to be reasonably sure of a majority. Democrats clearly were well over that range last fall, at least on the averages, and now appear to be a bit short.

It should be added, though, that some private polling has shown the Democratic advantage to be a relatively constant 7 points, and privately, many consultants and strategists watching a lot of numbers in individual states and districts are not sharing the recent euphoria expressed by many national Republicans or the pessimism heard by Democrats. There has been less real change on a race-by-race basis than meets the eye.

In terms of the import of primary elections held so far, many seem to be judging things in a binary fashion and on a week-to-week basis. One week they are concluding that Democrats are nominating moderate, pragmatic, and highly electable candidates, and the next week these same people conclude that Democrats are instead picking exotic and potentially problematic (my wife is trying to get me to stop using the term “wacko”) candidates for the general election. Just 13 states have held their primaries so far. After June 5, when 21 states will have selected their nominees (11 more have primaries later in June, and the remaining states have August and September primaries), a more rational assessment can be given than what has been tossed around every Wednesday morning for the last few weeks.

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