Like a lot of observers, I believe the president’s job approval rating is the most important indicator of his standing heading into a reelection year — certainly more reliable than the head-to-head polls matching him against this or that Democrat far from the general election that always get so much attention. Given the drama of events surrounding Trump right now, you’d figure his approval rating might be gyrating a bit. Nothing could be further from the truth, at this point anyway.
FiveThirtyEight’s averaging of presidential job approval data is especially useful because it adjusts findings affected by a poll’s quality and demonstrated partisan bias. That site has shown Trump’s average job approval rating oscillating between the floor of 40 percent and the ceiling of 43 percent since February (with just one day when it stood at 43.1 percent). RealClearPolitics, the other major polling average source, just uses raw, unadjusted poll findings, and thanks to the regular presence of pro-Trump outliers like Rasmussen, shows Trump with higher job approval numbers more often than not. But they report the same, well, stagnation in Trump’s numbers, ranging from a low of 41.0 percent at the beginning of February to a high of 45.1 percent in September. Right now, despite impeachment and all the other chaos surrounding Trump recently, FiveThirtyEight shows Trump’s ratings standing at 41.9 percent, smack dab in the middle of his usual range. RCP has his average at 43.9 percent, also near the middle of his ups and downs, such as they are.
That should be concerning to Republicans because Trump’s current job approval rating is the lowest of any president at this point in his tenure dating back to Harry Truman. If it does not go up before November, it will be tough for him to win unless he can lose the popular vote by even more than he did in 2016 and still win the Electoral College.
It’s possible that positive developments in the real world could lift Trump the few points he would need to get into traditionally competitive job approval territory, though it hasn’t really happened in the past. We should know in a few days how feasible that is, as the public absorbs more good economic news and deals over the USCMA and defense spending, alongside his impending impeachment. It’s also possible he could stumble into another government shutdown, which a year ago drove his approval ratings down into the 30s for a good while.
But the best bet at present is that assessments of Trump are for the most part not just baked but burned into the consciousness of most voters. Perhaps that’s due to mere partisan polarization, or perhaps he’s just someone about whom it is very difficult to be neutral — you are either repelled by him, or are overjoyed that he repels people you dislike. His signature meta-policy positions like viciousness toward immigrants, racially tinged nationalism, and contempt for the rule of law aren’t going to change. Odds are neither will his job approval standing.