Donald Trump's Incomparable Approval Ratings

(Bloomberg View) -- At the (almost) one-year mark, it's time to check in again on President Donald Trump's approval ratings.

The good news for him is that he's been rallying for the last month. After bottoming out (according to the FiveThirtyEight estimate, based on an adjusted averaging of all the polls that are out there) at a dismal 36.4 percent approval rating on Dec. 16, Trump has moved up solidly to 39.6 percent -- even slipping above 40.0 percent early this week for the first time since May. 

The bad news? He's still dead last among all polling-era presidents at this point into his first term, with Gerald Ford in second place at 43.5 percent approval and Ronald Reagan next at 48.9 percent. Looking at it from a different angle, his net approval (approval rating minus disapproval) makes him the only polling-era president below water after a year in office: -15.5 percent, far behind Ford (+4.9) and Barack Obama (+7.1). 

Trump fans might take some comfort in that Reagan won re-election in a massive landslide and Obama won a second term comfortably. Another positive marker? Bill Clinton, who also had an easy re-election, had the previous roughest first year of any newly elected president even though he ended it on an up note. On the other hand, Trump wasn't really in a group with these presidents. He was well behind them. In fact, outside of a few days he moved ahead of Clinton, he was in last place among the elected presidents all through the year, and usually by a large margin. 

A couple of things about Trump's recent uptick. Moving up 3 to 4 percentage points is nice, but it's not exactly a big deal unless there's more to it. Every previous president during the polling era has had at least a 15 percentage-point surge at some point. If Trump could do that (and hold on to that gain, which doesn't always happen), he'd be in good shape for re-election. But he's far from that right now. Also, I'm very skeptical that anyone knows exactly why it's happened. I've seen a lot of speculation. It was Christmastime! It was the tax bill! It was because the tax bill and other legislation was out of the news! It was because people really like bigoted remarks! It was the good economy finally kicking in! Speculation is fine, but there's simply no way to know. So welcome the various theories that you'll hear, but be very suspicious if anyone asserts their pet theory as fact. 

And, yes, I've heard all the arguments that Trump's poll numbers don't count, but the truth is the poll numbers are real. Contrary to myth, national polls were quite accurate in the 2016 election, and for that matter, Trump didn't outrun his poll numbers during the primaries, either. As for this year, everything we've seen, from special elections to the behavior of politicians from both parties, supports the idea that Trump's approval numbers are a pretty good indication of how the country as a whole thinks about him. Not, to be sure, a perfect picture; it's quite possible that the estimate is off a few percentage points in either direction. But it's good enough that we know he's been the least popular first-year president by a wide margin. 

Trump did all this with a pretty healthy economy. If things head south, he's almost certainly going to wind up where George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter ended up: unpopular and defeated for a second term. Or worse: A recession could cost him renomination, given that he's starting (at least right now) from such a low point. On the other hand, Reagan, Clinton and Harry Truman all rallied from lower than Trump is now closer to the election. 

What suggests that this will be difficult for Trump is that he's been at or lower than 40 percent for so much of his presidency, and polls show strong opposition to him has constantly been near 50 percent or worse. There's simply no comp for that among the 12 previous polling-era presidents. That doesn't mean Trump can't recover. It just means there's no example of what happens to a president when half the nation (or more) appears to have written him off. But perhaps he can change, or perhaps policy results will be so good that the fundamentals will overwhelm everything else. Once again, we just don't have examples to help us predict. 

1. Elizabeth Saunders on Trump's first year in foreign policy.

2. Dan Drezner on Trump as a hawk.

3. Heather Ba, Brandon Schneider and Terry Sullivan at the Monkey Cage on the empty desks in the Trump administration

4. Eric Ostermeier on senators elected by pluralities, not majorities. 

5. Casey Burgat on congressional term limits.

6. Kyle Kondik on open seats in the House.

7. Louis Jacobson at Governing on dysfunctional states.

8. And Lindsay McKenzie on the Monkey Cage. (Don't worry, John, the name is great.) 

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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.

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