It’s really hard to maintain perspective on public-opinion findings about the president’s job approval assessments. For many Republicans (and most definitely for Trump himself), every spike in any measurement of the president’s popularity is a sign that (a) Americans are getting used to him; or (b) Republican policies are making life so wonderful that people don’t care about this or that report of scandal or chaos in the White House, or (c) the anti-Trump enchantment woven by the fake-news media is wearing off. Conversely, Democrats tend to view drops in Trump approval as a sign that his party is toast in the upcoming midterms, while experiencing spikes as a sort of flashback to the evening of November 8, 2016.
There’s been a new buzz this week because two surveys absolutely guaranteed to get media attention — one from CNN and the other from the Associated Press — both showed the president’s job approval rating jumping seven points in the last month. Both, as it happens, had the same numbers both months: 35 percent in February and 42 percent in March. So once again, the speculation began: What might be lifting Trump’s popularity? Was it the economy or the tax bill? And was this the beginning of a rise that could stun the world this November, and then keep him in office through (yikes!) 2024?
In this and every other situation involving polls, it’s generally wise to look at averages rather than isolated polls, which are subject to all sorts of statistical “noise” and issues with samples, methodologies, and timing. Looking at the RealClearPolitics averages, on February 15, when the first AP poll went into the field, Trump’s approval rating was 42.1 percent. On March 14 when the latest AP poll went into the field, the average rating was 41.0 percent, down just over a point. No “spike” for Trump there. Similarly, on February 20, when CNN began its polling for that month, Trump’s approval rating was at 41.9 percent. On March 22, when the latest polling began, it was at 41.6 percent. No Trump Bump there, either.
There has been, as you may know, a herky-jerky rise in Trump’s approval ratings since they bottomed out in December of last year, at a time when the tax bill he and Republicans were pushing was quite unpopular, and it looked like the GOP might finish the year with virtually no legislative accomplishments. You can get an exaggerated sense of the turnaround by looking at individual polls that showed Trump ready to be tarred and feathered in December and other individual polls that showed him well up into the mid-40s — damn near even to his disapproval rate — much more recently. But again, the averages aren’t so dramatic. His low point at RCP was 37.0 percent on December 12, and his high point, which he’s equaling right now, was 42.2 percent. That’s nice for him, but less exciting when you realize that his average approval rating was roughly the same in May and September of last year.
The more you stare at the numbers, the more it looks like Trump had a really bad month in December and now his popularity is reverting to the mean. That provides no particular reason to believe it’s going to keep drifting upward.
Some Republicans think — or hope — that growing confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy will continue to lift his overall approval ratings. But it’s unclear that’s the key variable. In the quite negative-for-Trump February AP poll his approval rating on the economy was 45 percent. In the much better March AP poll it was 47 percent. And it’s not exactly clear that the economic indicators for the near term are all that boffo anyway; a lot depends on how Trump’s trade war shakes out. In any event, the economy isn’t what’s exerting a drag on Trump’s popularity: it’s basically everything else, and everything else isn’t going away.
Another thing to keep in mind in a low-turnout midterm election year is that intensity of approval and disapproval matters more than in a high-turnout presidential year. In that wonderful March CNN survey, 28 percent of respondents approved strongly of Trump; 46 percent disapproved strongly. The pattern persisted among the most important subcategory of voters, self-identified independents (whom Trump carried in 2016): 24 percent of indies strongly approve of Trump, while 43 percent disapprove strongly. Noting that this adverse intensity ratio has persisted over time, CNN’s analysis concludes: “[T]he fluctuation in Trump’s ratings comes largely among those whose views on the President aren’t that deeply held.” And that’s not a good thing in terms of any positive popularity trend, particularly in a midterm year when the irresolute may simply refrain from voting.
Trump fans, of course, are ever-ready to remind us that the president wasn’t very popular when he won the presidency. That may bode well for his 2020 reelection prospects if he draws an opponent as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. But in midterms, poor presidential approval ratings invariably mean poor performance by the president’s party. The most important historical data point remains this: Presidents who go into the midterms with an approval rating under 50 percent have an average loss of 36 House seats. Democrats need 24 seats to take control. Trump and the GOP have a ways to go to become popular enough to minimize their losses.