As we get closer to the voting stage of the 2020 presidential election, a lot of Republicans still harbor hopes that Donald Trump will somehow break out of the cul de sac of unpopularity in which he has uniquely lived since becoming president. For a while there this spring and summer, his job approval ratings were gradually moving up to near the top of the narrow band he has occupied throughout his presidency. But more recently, his numbers have drifted back down into very familiar territory, as Nate Silver noted this morning:
That would be the government shutdown Trump forced last winter, during which his approval ratings average at FiveThirtyEight dropped into the high 30s. That site adjusts poll findings for pollster quality and partisan bias. An alternative source of average polling data, RealClearPolitics just offers raw numbers without adjustments, and thanks to the ubiquity of certain Republican-leaning surveys (notably Rasmussen and HarrisX), it tends to show higher ratings for the president. But RCP is also showing a gradual Trump slump: The average is currently 43.0 percent, having reached a peak of 45.1 percent (the highest since the week after Trump’s inauguration) in July.
Gallup is the go-to pollster for historical comparisons. It shows Trump at 39 percent in job approval right now, very near the 40 percent average for his presidency as a whole (the lowest of any president since Gallup began measuring approval ratings). Trump fans may point out that at this very point in their presidencies, three predecessors — Obama, Clinton, and Nixon — who went on to be reelected had Gallup approval ratings in the 40s. But no one, absolutely no one, in presidential polling history has had as low a ceiling in approval ratings as Trump. When Obama, for example, edged above 50 percent just before Election Day in 2012, he was returning to a level of popularity he had achieved repeatedly. Trump’s top Gallup approval number is 46 percent. There’s no particular reason to think it will ever go much higher, and if bad things happen, whether it’s another government shutdown, or a scandal involving mistreatment of immigrant children, or a setback in his trade wars, or a slowing economy, it’s likely to go back down into the 30s once again.
In crucial demographic categories for his reelection prospects, the job approval data looks worse, as Ron Brownstein observes after looking at the latest ABC/Washington Post survey:
Trump responded to this particular poll personally, with, as usual, a slur:
But ABC/WaPo is hardly an outlier right now; Trump’s approval ratings are slumping in every direction. Even his favorite pollster, the wildly pro-Republican Rasmussen outfit, has showed his approval rating bouncing around at between 45 and 47 percent the last week.
As always, some caveats are necessary before you conclude that we will be rid of the 45th president in January of 2021. Most job approval surveys (particularly at this point in the election cycle) do not screen respondents for voter registration or likelihood to vote. That may artificially depress Trump’s numbers a bit, though if we do indeed have the kind of very high voter turnout in 2020 that most observers expect, the differences could be minimal. And while historically there is a very high correlation of presidential approval ratings to reelection success or failure, Trump has already broken the mold once by getting elected in the first place despite being the most unpopular major-party presidential nominee ever. Remember as well that he won in 2016 with just 46.1 percent of the popular vote. If he draws another inside straight in the Electoral College, his chronic, persistent, historic unpopularity may not keep him from a second term. And that’s an indictment of our political system.