Off to the Races

What’s Fueling Trump’s Rise in the Polls

The president’s Gallup approval is his highest since his first week in office, likely because of good economic news and the North Korea summit.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 18, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Trump presidency has a plethora of unique attributes, but one of the most surprising to me is the lack of volatility of his poll numbers. Using the Gallup Organization’s weekly polling as a yardstick so that we are comparing apples and apples, his job-approval rating to date has averaged 39 percent, usually staying in the 36 to 42 percent range. There have been many weeks when developments seemed to go his way but his approval numbers didn’t go up much, if any. Other weeks, there was a lot of seemingly bad news but his approval numbers would go down very little, if at all. Spoiler alert: Korean summit developments and favorable economic news seem to be the magic elixirs for Trump, at least so far.

When Trump’s Gallup numbers go much outside that window of 36 to 42 percent, it is worth noting. There have been 73 weekly polls since Trump took office (though the first measurement was actually nine days since he took the oath of office midweek). This past week, June 11-17, with interviewing completed Sunday night, his approval rating was 45 percent, his highest weekly Gallup rating since Jan. 20-29, the first Gallup poll of his presidency. His disapproval rating was 50 percent, the lowest since that first poll. As recently as May 21-27, his approval rating was just 40 percent (55 percent disapproval). The approval ticked up a point to 41 percent for May 28-June 3, up another point for June 4-10, and now up 3 more points in the most recent weekly sampling.

Looking under the hood of the latest poll, 90 percent of Republicans approved the job Trump is doing, while 42 percent of independents and 10 percent of Democrats approved. Only three times has Trump’s approval rating among Republicans reached 90 percent, all three times this year—Jan. 29-Feb. 4, June 4-10, and this past week. The 42 percent approval among independents was the highest for that group since his first month in office. Finally, among Democrats, while the 10 percent approval rating was not Trump’s best—he reached 13 percent on April 30-May 6 of this year—it was better than usual; in only 12 out of 73 weeks has he sported a double-digit approval rating.

Trump was the first elected president since modern polling began—let’s just call it the post-World War II period—to never get a honeymoon. Those two 45 percent approvals, in his first week and now his latest week in office, are 1 point below his 2016 share of the national popular vote. Averaging the 13 weekly polls during his first quarter in office, he had a 41 percent approval, dropping to 39 percent in the second quarter, then down to 37 percent for the third and fourth quarters of last year. Much of that gradual decline was among Republicans, who presumably were disappointed for the first 11 months of the year when none of the president’s top legislative priorities passed Congress.

It was after the tax cut passed in December, and the subsequent announcements of wage and retirement-benefit increases and bonuses by various companies, that his numbers went back up to 41 percent for the first quarter of this year. So far for this quarter, it is 41 percent as well. With eight weeks in a row of 40-plus percent approval ratings, the first time in over a year this has happened, a mixture of economic news and hope about Korea seem to have fueled this rise.

Before Republicans and the White House start breaking out the champagne, it’s worth remembering that these are still bad numbers. He is now above Jimmy Carter’s 43 percent at this point, tied with Ronald Reagan’s 45 percent, and a point below Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s approval at this stage. It was a different era, but Democrats lost only 15 seats in 1978, Carter’s lone midterm election, though his approval ratings had actually ticked up to 49 percent in the last Gallup poll before that midterm. Reagan’s last approval going into the 1982 midterm was 43 percent, and his party lost 26 seats. Obama’s 45 percent yielded a 63-seat loss in 2010, while Clinton’s 45 percent resulted in losing 54 seats in 1994.

The bottom line is that these numbers are better than they have generally been for Trump but still well within the zone where other presidents have gotten pasted with significant midterm losses. With district boundaries where they are and Democrats concentrated into urban areas, GOP losses over 40 seats seem unlikely. But Trump’s current 45 percent needs to be the beginning of an upward trend through November if he hopes to salvage this House majority.

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