Let's Start Taking Trump's Unpopularity Seriously

(Bloomberg View) -- The FiveThirtyEight polling aggregator tells us that Wednesday was Donald Trump's 300th day in office -- and he's still breaking records for unpopularity at this stage of his presidency. 

The good news for Trump? It's hard to find any, but I suppose it's becoming fairly likely that he's plateaued at his current level. His approval is currently estimated at 38.1 percent, and it's been in the high 30s since dropping below 40 percent May 16. I don't think anyone at this point believes he's hit a hard floor, though it's at least plausible that it would take additional events to push him further down.

The bad news? He's the most unpopular president after 300 days during the polling era, about 9 points below Bill Clinton (who had already hit his all-time low and was rallying in November 1993). That's approval numbers. His net approval (that is, approval minus disapproval) is even uglier. Every previous president in the polling era (which starts with Harry Truman) was in positive territory at this point. With 55.6 percent saying they don't like the way Trump is handling his office, his net approval is -17.5, which is 21 percentage points lower than Clinton's was. 

He's unlikely to catch any of the other presidents anytime soon. The next point any of the elected presidents fell below zero net approval was Ronald Reagan in mid-April 1982. The next time any of them were lower than where Trump is now was Reagan in February 1983. In other words, unless he becomes more popular, Trump will spend every day of the entire first two years of his presidency with the lowest net approval of any newly elected president (and he need only drop a bit more to get below Truman's low point within his first two years). 

Yes, polls can be wrong. But there's no particular reason to believe these are any more than a few points off, and they could just as easily be wrong in either direction. No, the 2016 election didn't reveal major polling problems. The idea that national polls were wrong during the 2016 general election is simply a myth, although some state polls were off by several percentage points. And the polls predicted his nomination from early on; it was "experts" (such as myself) who were wrong. There's no reason beyond wishful thinking among those who do support the president to believe that he's actually popular and surveys are just missing it for some reason.

Don't trust me -- trust the election results. Democrats picked up yet another state legislative seat on Tuesday, this one in an Oklahoma district that Trump had carried by 40 percentage points a year ago. That's the 14th gain for Democrats in state legislative special elections so far this year, and (adding in Virginia and New Jersey regular elections) at least the 31st seat to go from Republican to Democrat. Or trust the politicians -- Republicans are retiring at a rapid rate and the party has had trouble finding strong candidates to run against some potentially vulnerable Democrats, while Democrats are breaking all sorts of recruiting records. In other words, everyone in the political system is behaving as if Trump is unusually unpopular. 

As I've said before, there is still time for him to recover before 2020, although as the months go by it seems harder and harder to imagine. Most previous presidents have had impressive rallies of 15 percentage points of approval or more. It's just that all of them were recovering lost ground. Trump has never been popular, either during the campaign, in the electoral victory in which he lost the popular vote, or once he took office. Perhaps that doesn't affect his capacity for rallying; perhaps it does. 

His chances for recovering in time to avoid an electoral disaster for the Republicans in 2018, however, are rapidly disappearing. Clinton's Democrats suffered in 1994 from his awful start in 1993; while a Trump recovery would surely help his party next November, a lot of what will happen is already either baked in now or will be soon, thanks to candidate matchups that will strongly favor Democrats. 

I still think the story of Trump's unpopularity is badly underplayed by many in the media. It's such an out-of-proportion number that people just don't know what to make of it -- and, no doubt, the surprise of both Trump's nomination and election make people understandably gun-shy. It's time for people to accept that it's real, and it matters. 

1. Dan Drezner on what to do about how women in national security are treated. 

2. Mira Rapp-Hooper at the Monkey Cage on Trump's Asia trip.

3. Alvin Chang at Vox on Sean Hannity, leading conspiracy theorist

4. Nate Cohn on the Alabama Senate contest. 

5. And Nate Silver on the consequences of the Alabama Senate contest

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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