Trump’s Improving Numbers Belie Electability Issue

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We’re now a third of the way into President Donald Trump’s four-year term. It’s time to check in on his approval ratings again.

The good news for Trump: He's sustained his 2018 public opinion rally. Via FiveThirtyEight, through Wednesday he was about 6 percentage points better than his mid-December low point. That leaves him right around 42 percent approval. He's plateaued for now, staying around the same spot for the last two weeks. He’s also continued to move up, albeit not quite in a straight line, so that this 42 percent approval level is higher than he was in April. 

I do think that moving from the mid- to high 30s into the low 40s probably has some important political consequences. If he can stick around at this level, the chances of a serious primary challenge will start dropping. I’ve been thinking that 40 percent approval is probably the approximate dividing line, with anything under that marker pushing ambitious Republicans to begin thinking it might be riskier to sit on the sidelines in 2020 than to challenge someone who might well be seen by then as a certain loser. 

It’s also true that every small improvement in presidential popularity should mean fewer losses for Republicans in November.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that his approval rating through 489 days is once again dead last among all presidents during the polling era at this point. He had moved past both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter for a while, but both of them had (short-lived) small rallies at this point. Right now, Trump is in last, followed by Carter and Harry Truman at 43.1 percent, Ford at 44.2 and Ronald Reagan at 45.0. If Trump continues to rally, he has a decent chance to move up several slots, and as long as the bottom doesn’t drop out, he’ll exit last place soon. But make no mistake: Trump continues to be a highly unpopular president, and he’s by far the least popular over the course of the first 16 months by a large margin. 

As far as why he’s moved up some, Mark Blumenthal at SurveyMonkey took a look recently, and while he has several interesting findings, he can’t really solve the puzzle. The problem is that there are just far too many stories in the news to be able to really know which, if any, are moving voters. What does appear to be the case, however, is that Trump’s recovery is in large part due to conservative Republicans who had wavered on coming back to him — and that a hard core of close to half the electorate still wants no part of the president. It’s a good reminder that unless he can find some way to change the basic opinion structure that he’s had since his candidacy began, he has an extraordinarily difficult needle to thread in order to win an election. 

Of course, he did that — barely, but that’s enough — in 2016. If he can manage to peak at just the right moment and get lucky with the distribution of his support, he might do it again even with half the nation strongly against him. But I wouldn’t want to bet on it, and so far there’s not any remote sign that he’s interested in appealing to those who might become weak supporters instead of strong opponents. 

1. At the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell talks with Steve Ballmer about the census and other government data.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Alexander B. Downes and Lindsey A. O'Rourke on why regime change in Iran might fail even if it succeeds.

3. John Patty at Mischiefs of Faction on Dodd-Frank and journal votes

4. Kelly Dittmar on women and the Tuesday primaries. Lots of good detail here. 

5. Alex Roarty reports on how Democratic consultants are advising candidates to talk about the Russia scandal and the Robert Mueller investigation. This sounds about right to me: Emphasize the facts — indictments, guilty pleas — but, as Nancy Pelosi said again Wednesday, downplay impeachment at least for now. 

6. Greg Sargent makes several good points about this, including the crucial one that with Trump still quite unpopular, it’s factually wrong (and a lousy campaign tactic) to start casting him as a winner on the Mueller probe. Yes, the people who are going to be with Trump wherever he is are going to buy his latest, increasingly frenzied embrace of conspiracy theories — but that doesn’t mean others can’t see his downward spiral, especially if it’s presented that way. 

7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has some advice for Trump on trade wars.

8. And I pretty strongly disagree with Eric Levitz on democracy and capitalism, but click over and read; it’s a perspective worth being informed about. I do think it’s likely true that excessive income inequality (and wealth inequality) is bad for democracy in all sorts of important ways. But at the same time, I think it’s important to separate the virtues of democracy, which are all about self-rule and opening the public sphere and strong citizenship to all residents of a polity, from any particular policy outcomes — including those I like, and those I believe are popular. That’s a minority position about democracy as far as I can tell, which is one of the reasons I recommend reading Levitz. But it is where I am. On a more practical level, I’m also not at all convinced that there’s a bigger threat to full and meaningful citizenship in the U.S. right now from economic outcomes than from ethnic and gender bigotry, and over the course of U.S. history I don’t think it’s anywhere close to an open question. 

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