For political writers and other obsessives, presidential job approval ratings are an essential tool of the trade. They are particularly important in the run-up to a midterm election, which typically operates as a referendum on the occupant of the White House and POTUS’s party. And so we watch Trump’s approval ratings carefully, noting, for example, their slump last fall and their partial recovery to the current low-40s level that’s increasingly characteristic of his entire presidency.
Less attention is paid to the other side of the coin: presidential disapproval ratings. But it’s Trump’s high level of disapproval — and the near-extinction of uncertainty about his performance — that has made him unique among not-terribly-popular presidents. This much-ignored fact is accentuated in a new report from Pew Research:
The share of the public approving of Trump’s job performance is not very different from the share approving of Clinton (42%) or Reagan (44%) 18 months into their administrations. However, Trump’s disapproval rating at this point is higher than both of these predecessors: 54% disapprove of Trump’s handling of the job, compared with 44% who said this of Clinton in June 1994 and 46% who disapproved of Reagan’s handling of the job in June 1982. (Fewer Americans say they “don’t know” how to rate Trump’s job performance at this point in his presidency than said the same thing at similar points for most of his predecessors.)
This section of the report didn’t mention Obama’s disapproval ratings, but since he and Trump are so often compared to each other as polarizing figures, it’s worth noting from Gallup data that Obama’s at the same point in his presidency was 47 percent (Gallup has Trump’s at 55 percent). Yes, the number of people who did not express either approval or disapproval was lower for Obama (8 percent) than for Clinton (14 percent) or Reagan (10 percent), but still not as low as the 5 percent who were unsure how to judge Trump. People really aren’t neutral about the man.
Driving the high disapproval ratings, of course, is the unusual antipathy Trump has generated from Democrats, as Pew notes:
The 7% of Democrats who approve of Trump is lower than the 14% of Republicans who approved of Obama and the 23% of Democrats who approved of Bush during their respective administrations. Out-party ratings of the president were higher in previous decades. For example, an average 31% of Democrats approved of Ronald Reagan’s job performance.”
Trump’s not significantly more popular among Democratic-leaning independents; only 8 percent of them approve of his job performance. The president himself likes to brag about his popularity among Republicans being higher than anyone’s since Abraham Lincoln (a preposterous claim, if only because polling didn’t exist in the 1860s). Actually, his peak approval rating among Republicans has lagged that of both Bushes and of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But he does command a lot of GOP support for a pol whose unpopularity elsewhere is so notable:
Trump’s support among Republicans is comparable to the ratings other presidents have received from members of their own party. The 84% of Republicans who approve of the job Trump is doing is similar to the 81% of Democrats who approved of Obama’s job performance over the course of his administration and the 81% of Republicans who approved of Bush during his two terms.
And the intensity of both support and disdain for Trump seems to be steadily increasing, as Charlie Cook noted last week:
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.
It’s hard to imagine the degree of polarization over Trump can keep going up until 2020, when presumably he will be running for a second term. But it’s unlikely the number of people who just aren’t sure about this dramatically galvanizing man will ever grow beyond the ranks of the tuned-out and the very confused.