What's So Stable About This White House? The Ratings

(Bloomberg View) -- President Donald Trump's approval ratings have been remarkably stable, a bizarre contrast to all the news out of his administration. The Fix's Philip Bump revives the argument that it's less about Trump than it is about partisan polarization: We all have such strong attachments to our parties, especially the "negative partisanship" of hating the other party, that presidential approval is now always going to be stable since all it reflects is tribalism. 

I still think that conclusion is flat-out wrong.

The biggest counterargument is the presidency of George W. Bush, who (as Bump's data show) had remarkably unstable approval ratings. It's probably true that partisan polarization has intensified a bit over the last decade or so, but it was already quite strong during Bush's presidency. And yet it didn't prevent him from reaching record highs and challenging the worst-ever lows. 

It's also, in my view, inconsistent with Trump's record lows (during the polling era). He's currently at 40.7 percent approval, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's pretty good for Trump, toward the top of the range he's been in since last May. But it's also the worst of any polling-era president this many days into his first term. After Trump, the lowest after 431 days in office are Harry Truman at 45.2 percent, Gerald Ford at 45.5 percent, Ronald Reagan at 46 percent, Barack Obama at 48.3 percent and Jimmy Carter at 50.1 percent. Trump's been in last place, and usually by an even larger margin, for almost his entire term, although in another month or so he's finally likely to escape that status, at least for a while. 

My guess -- and I think the conventional wisdom as well -- is that Trump's low but stable ratings are a combination of the constant flow of negative stories about the administration and him personally along with good news about the economy. Trump has managed to alienate pretty much everyone who could be alienated by normal news, but he still has the support of Republicans inclined to support their president during good times. That's a larger group than those who would support their party's president no matter what -- a number that's always been around 25 percent. We haven't tested that, because Trump hasn't been president during a high-casualty war or during a recession, two events that have pushed even party loyalists away from their president. 

But rather than Bump's conclusion that politicians are no longer "rewarded or punished for any actions they might take," the truth is that Trump has been sharply punished: He has the worst approval ratings ever for this point in his presidency! It's just that he's not further punished for each little commotion. Or, perhaps, and depending on one's view of the economy, it may just take Trump's ability to constantly generate negative stories to keep his approval ratings down so low despite the constant pressure (from good economic news) for them to go up. 

After all, after many years of stability during a period of not-quite-peace and almost-sort-of-prosperity, Barack Obama's approval ratings rallied some 10 percentage points in his final year, perhaps as a result of the slow recovery finally convincing people that good times were here. I don't think Trump is capable of stopping the flow of negative stories, but if he was and everything else stayed the same, I suspect he'd be quite a bit more popular in time. And meanwhile, if everything stays the same but the economy goes bad, I strongly suspect he would wind up below 30 percent approval. And nothing that's happened so far during his presidency even hints against that.

1. Strongly recommend this roundtable about U.S. parties, Trump and more over at Democracy. Michael Tomasky talks with David Karol, Frances Lee, Christopher Caldwell and Michael Kazin. They're all excellent; Karol and Lee are two of the smartest party scholars we have, and you should always seek out anything they have to say.

2. Elizabeth Saunders on why hiring John Bolton doesn't necessarily mean Trump is going to start a war: "U.S. foreign policy the day after Bolton takes over as national security adviser is likely to be only a little more unpredictable than it was the day before."

3. Sarah Binder on the lessons from passage of the omnibus spending bill. It's really extraordinary how well Democrats did in this round of federal spending. They should mainly thank the House Freedom Caucus -- Republicans who weren't going to vote for a mainstream conservative spending plan and therefore gave Democrats quite a bit of leverage.

4. Heather Hurlburt on why Bolton isn't suited to the job he's signed on for ...

5. ... while I think Greg Sargent is probably correct on this very important point: "What’s really happening is that Trump is increasingly surrounding himself with advisers who are better than the 'adults in the room' at manipulating his erratic and shifting impulses and whims, by giving a shape to them he can accept and act upon" ...

6. ... as my Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien has a good point about working for Trump.

7. Judy Keen reports on women running for office in Minnesota and the nation. 

8. And Ed Kilgore on the life and career of Zell Miller

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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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