Off to the Races

Pro- and Anti-Trump Views Harden

Why didn't Trump's controversial week affect his poll numbers? Because voters are increasingly resistant to changing their minds.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
July 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

After President Trump’s disastrous performances in Helsinki and Brussels and instigation of a trade war, many predicted that last week would represent a turning point in his presidency, that even many of his supporters would lose faith and his already low job-approval ratings would plummet. This column, among others, suggested caution, predicting that Trump’s numbers might not go into a free fall.

Since people have been bombarded by thousands of data points of information about the president and his actions, their opinions have already formed and few new developments, no matter how significant they may appear, are likely to substantially affect how he is perceived. The battle lines have long since formed: The people who have been with him in the past are still with him and will stay with him; those who have been against him remain so, and that won’t likely change either. The American people are already sorted out on Trump, and very little additional sorting is possible.

The just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 900 registered voters conducted July 15-18—with all interviews conducted after many of the tariffs were announced and the NATO summit in Brussels, and roughly half the interviews before Trump’s meeting and debacle of a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin—suggests that this view is still the case. Trump’s overall approval rating ticked up a point since last month, from 44 to 45 percent, and his disapproval went down a point, from 53 to 52 percent—all statistically insignificant changes. While the NBC/WSJ poll showed Trump up a point, Gallup’s July 16-22 poll of 1,500 adults instead showed Trump’s approval down a single point, from 43 to 42 percent, with disapproval up 2 points, from 52 to 54 percent. Suffice it to say, his overall numbers didn’t move much.

What’s more interesting is the consolidation that has taken place. As Fred Yang, the Democratic pollster from Hart Research who conducted the NBC/WSJ poll with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, told NBC News, “The more Trump gets criticized by the media, the more his base seems to rally behind him.” Trump’s strong-approval ratings actually went up 3 points, from 26 to 29 percent, but his strong-disapproves also went up 2 points from June, from 42 to 44 percent. In short, the voters who approved of him approved more strongly, and those who disapproved, disapproved more strongly too.

Keeping with that theme, the percentage of self-identified Republicans approving of Trump went up by 4 points from June, from 84 to 88 percent. There was no change among Democrats; both months saw 89 percent disapproving. Approval among independents dropped 7 points, from 43 to 36 percent, and disapproval dropped by 2 points, from 50 to 48 percent. Sixty-four percent of all Republicans strongly approved of Trump, while 80 percent of all Democrats strongly disapproved of him.

Similarly, those who predicted that the fallout from the European trip and tariffs would be a game-changer in the fight for control of Congress appear to have gotten a bit over their skis. The Democratic advantage in the generic-ballot test dropped from 10 points to 6 points. I wouldn’t interpret this as a real tightening, as the 10-point margin in the June NBC-WSJ poll was wider than most other recent polling. The RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages show Democrats up by 7.4 and 7.5 percentage points, respectively. The trade war might bite Republicans on the rear, and many are indeed nervous about the president’s words and actions on trade, but it hasn’t bitten them yet.

The Nov. 6 election is now 15 weeks away, so of course things could change before the votes are in. But in the nine midterm elections that I have covered with The Cook Political Report, and a total of 12 midterm elections that I have watched closely, we’ve never seen the dynamics change much after midsummer. Whatever the trend was by this point was pretty much in place on Election Day. To the extent that things have changed, it generally has been waves intensifying, growing larger, not diminishing or disappearing.

While some Republicans keep touting the strong economy, the fact that this is largely true and yet Trump still has such awful job-approval ratings—of all elected post-World War II presidents, only Jimmy Carter had a lower job-approval rating in June of his second year in office—is testament to the Trump Penalty, the price he and his party are paying for his modus operandi. He and they should be doing much better, and he is to blame for the fact that they’re not.

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