The day before Washington exploded with the news of Robert Mueller’s move (indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and the unsealing of a guilty plea by George Papadopolous) on three Trump campaign factotums for various misdeeds, Gallup’s daily reading of the president’s job-approval rating posted an all-time low of 33 percent. It raised a perennial question about this president: How low can his approval ratings go, and how much does it matter?
According to Gallup, there have been four presidents since World War II who have at some point registered lower job-approval ratings than Trump’s today. George W. Bush dropped as low as 25 percent in October of 2008. Jimmy Carter hit 29 percent in October of 1979. Richard Nixon’s job-approval rating was at 24 percent the day he resigned. And Harry Truman managed to reach 22 percent in February of 1952. You will note that all four lows were in the second half of these presidencies (one at quite literally the very end), indicating a tendency of the public to grow tired of their chief executives (though not always: Bill Clinton had his lowest job-approval ratings in 1993, and was at 73 percent the week he was impeached).
So Trump’s approval ratings haven’t necessarily bottomed out. What might insulate him from further losses, however, is his persistently high standing among his fellow Republicans. In the last full week of Gallup ratings, his average approval rating among self-identified Republicans was 79 percent. In the four previous presidential nadirs, the approval numbers for the president’s own party were at 55 percent (Bush), 34 percent (Carter), 50 percent (Nixon) and 44 percent (Truman).
Past presidents who fell into an approval-rating black hole have suffered from a poor economy, intra-party dissension, or both. At the moment, Trump does not look especially vulnerable to either of these problems.
But the numbers do bear watching: There has been a strong correlation between a president’s job-approval rating and his party’s performance in midterms. As FiveThirtyEight observed earlier this year:
“[T]hree presidents have carried disapproval ratings into their first midterms that were at least as high as their approval ratings: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. They were also the victims of the three biggest losses in House seats; on the Senate side, Clinton and Obama experienced the biggest losses of any of the nine newly elected presidents.”
Conversely, the only two presidents in living memory whose parties actually gained seats in midterms, George W. Bush (2002) and Bill Clinton (1998), had job-approval ratings going into those elections of 63 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
A caveat that must always be noted in analysis of job-approval ratings is that they usually are not screened for likelihood to vote. Gallup, for example, measures presidential approval among “all adults.” That’s one reason Trump was able to come close in the popular vote in 2016 (while winning the Electoral College vote) despite a Gallup favorable/unfavorable ratio of 36/51. Another reason, of course, is that his opponent’s ratio, at 47/52, was no great shakes, either. But that opponent’s unpopularity is not going to be a factor in 2018. Trump’s most definitely will.