vision 2020

Is Trump Suddenly Becoming More Popular?

A popular Donald J. Trump would be largely unprecedented. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

This morning as on every weekday morning I glanced at RealClearPolitics’ polling average for the president’s job-approval ratings, and I nearly dropped my coffee cup: It was at 45.1 percent. Just yesterday I had written that Trump had “yet to hit 45 percent in average approval ratings at either RealClearPolitics or FiveThirtyEight since the earliest days of his presidency.” Scanning RCP’s graph of past averages, I learned that today’s was Trump’s highest average approval rating since February 20, 2017.

So is the president undergoing some sort of serious improvement in his famously stagnant levels of popularity, which could result in him reaching levels consistent with past presidents who were reelected? Are the economy and the triumphant GOP spin on the Mueller report combining to give him an unprecedented lift?

Maybe, but if you take a look under the hood of these polls, you can see that it’s really too early to tell. RCP does a straight-line average of unadjusted recent poll findings within a very limited window. It’s possible this latest spike was mostly attributable to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll giving Trump a 39 percent job-approval rating drifting beyond the window. And RCP’s Trump job-approval averages generally run a bit high because of the frequency with which Rasmussen and Harris X polls of this question — which both have notable and long-standing pro-GOP “house effects” — are released.

By comparison, FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages place Trump at 42.5 percent, which is pretty good for him, but no higher than it was at various points in February of this year, and October and November of last year. FiveThirtyEight, however, has a much wider window of polls that go into its averages, includes more polls, and most crucially, adjusts results for partisan “house effects” and poll and pollster quality.

Interestingly, the two averages are much closer in terms of Trump’s disapproval rating, which also matters: RCP pegs it at 52.3 percent, and FiveThirtyEight at 52.6 percent.

But whichever snapshot of Trump’s popularity you prefer, the bigger question is this: What level should Trump’s approval rating reach before it’s sensible to rate him a solid favorite for reelection, as most incumbents have been? His current approval ratings are often compared to those of eventual winners Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. But note this:

Reagan’s Gallup approval rating rose from 45 percent 18 months out to 53 percent six months later, then 55 percent eight months later. Obama’s rose from 44 percent 18 months out to 52 percent on Election Eve. 

So get back to me the first time Trump’s approval rating tops 50 percent. And for that matter, let’s see if it stays as high as it is now for a sustained period of time. The man does have a knack for stepping on his own good fortune.

Is Trump Suddenly Becoming More Popular?