Donald Trump is not a popular politician — and has no intention of becoming one.
The president’s net approval rating has been negative for the entirety of his time in office; for most of that period, it’s been in the negative double digits. Faced with such numbers, most incumbents would scramble to execute some drastic rebranding. But Trump has taken a more stoic posture. To the extent that the president’s actions are shaped by a premeditated, strategic logic (rather than merely by whatever programming decisions Fox News segment producers happened to make on a particular day), that logic presumes he will never endear himself to a majority of Americans. Thus, Trump has declined to soften his rhetoric, meaningfully triangulate on salient issues of public policy, or delete his Twitter account. Resigned to the fact that he will never boast the approval of more than (roughly) 43 percent of the public, the president has focused on keeping his core supporters engaged. Or at least this is what Trump’s aides whisper to reporters every time he commits some (figurative) atrocity in service of the culture war. It’s possible that the president is simply incapable of not tweeting racist bile, and must therefore reverse engineer a political strategy that rationalizes such behavior.
Regardless, it isn’t hard to see why Trump might think that his presidency can survive on base mobilization alone. Trump’s approval rating may currently sit at a meager 42 percent; but on the day he won the White House, RealClearPolitics’ poll of polls had it at 38.6. So why shouldn’t he deem his current base of support sufficiently broad? After all, last time around, he prevailed with even lower favorability rating, and without the benefits of incumbency.
As far as comforting things Donald Trump likes to tell himself go, this is reasonable enough. But the path Trump took to the White House in 2016 was an awfully narrow one. Trump’s success in winning an Electoral College majority— despite being the most unpopular major-party nominee in recorded history — was contingent on (at least) three related factors:
1) He drew a historically unpopular Democratic opponent.
2) His share of the popular vote was higher than his Election Day approval rating (46.1 percent versus 38.6 percent).
3) And he won voters who disapproved of both candidates by a double-digit margin.
A new Fox News poll suggests Trump is poised to enjoy exactly none of those benefits in 2020. Fox may be a less than “fair and balanced” as a news channel, but its polling operation is among the most well-regarded in the business. And the oufit’s latest survey shows all four of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination leading Trump by comfortable margins:
In every one of these head-to-heads, Trump’s existing level of support is lower than his approval rating, which Fox pegs at 42 percent (with 56 percent of respondents disapproving of his job performance).
The president’s failure to outperform his approval rating in these hypothetical matchups is linked to the relative popularity of his rivals, each of whom boasts a net positive approval ratings: Joe Biden’s net favorability is at +8 (50 to 42 percent); Bernie Sanders’s is +7 (50 to 43); Elizabeth Warren’s is +6 (46 to 40), and Kamala Harris’s is +1 (41 to 40). Granted, Harris’s positive mark is well within the poll’s margin of error. But by Election Day 2016, Hillary Clinton’s favorability negative 16 — and her approval rating had already turned negative by August 2015 (the analogous period in the previous election cycle).
To be sure, Clinton’s unpopularity increased massively as the 2016 campaign progressed. And once the Democratic Party settles on a standard-bearer, Trump and his allies will do everything in their power to turn him or her radioactive. Still, the president and Fox News have both already hit Warren pretty hard. And Bernie Sanders has been a nationally renowned, self-avowed socialist for nearly four years now. The fact that both those candidates still have solidly positive approval ratings — even after turning in nationally televised debate performances that multiple New York Times columnists deemed politically suicidal — suggests that the president may have a harder time sliming his Democratic adversary in 2020 than he did last time around.
But for Trump, the most alarming takeaway from Fox’s survey may be this: Even if the president does manage to turn the Democratic nominee’s favorability steeply negative, he could still lose in a rout. In 2016, Trump won voters who disapproved of both major-party candidates by 50 to 39 percent margin in national exit polls. Respondents who disliked both Biden and Trump in Fox’s poll favored the Democrat over the president by a whopping 43 to 10 percent margin.
It’s far too early to draw any confident conclusions from general election polls. But if the general dynamics captured in this survey prove durable, Donald Trump will be one-term president. And given the darkening economic picture, there’s some reason to think Trump has further to fall than climb between now and November of next year.