Separation Hasn't Dented Trump's Ratings

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We’re now more than a week into heavy coverage of Donald Trump's policy of separating migrant families — but it's already hard to argue that the backlash has dented the president's approval ratings.

As I write this, FiveThirtyEight estimates Trump enjoys an approval rating of 42.5 percent — a bit higher than in early June, and basically the best since his brief — and historically bad — honeymoon after taking office.

The polling aggregators at RealClearPolitics and HuffPollster tell a similar story. If you cherry-pick the estimate you use (or, even worse, use a single poll instead of polling averages) you might be able to tell a story of dwindling approval. But, looking at all the data, I think it’s just as easy to say the story has helped him.

Most likely, neither is the case, at least so far. Trump’s job approval was probably helped a bit by the North Korea summit, but, overall, there's been little change in the last six weeks or so. There’s a decent chance that the rally in his ratings that began in December has plateaued, but that seems to have happened before the family separation story dominated the news. 

Could this be premature? Yes. Polling averages, even sophisticated ones, can be influenced by which organizations happen to release surveys at any particular time. And while good ones do an excellent job of minimizing the effects of surveys that, through blind luck, happen to be far off the real underlying truth, they aren’t perfect at it.

Still, if there was a really major effect — say, a sudden five percentage point drop in approval — we would almost certainly know by now. If, on the other hand, the effect was small, such as a one percentage point loss, then it’s possible we’re missing a real effect. 

(By the way, Gallup releases their weekly results on Monday. After spiking up last week, there’s an excellent chance their numbers will retreat this week. If that happens, some will hype it as evidence of a major effect from the immigration story. Don’t believe it — unless there’s confirming evidence from other organizations.)

Why hasn’t the story hurt Trump? We really don’t know, and beware anyone who claims to be doing anything more than speculating.

Perhaps the separation story was canceled out by other (perceived) positive stories over the same time frame. Perhaps it’s hard for this kind of story to shift opinion very much; Hurricane Katrina’s effects on George W. Bush’s approval ratings were probably overstated. It may be that most people just don’t evaluate success on these kinds of things. 

Even at his post-honeymoon peak, Trump remains unusually unpopular. At this time in a presidency, he's ahead of only Jimmy Carter, according to FiveThirtyEight, although Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are all within five percentage points.

To look at it another way, however, Trump remains dead last in net approval, as has been the case throughout his presidency. So while it’s good news for him that he’s moved up in 2018 and hasn’t, so far, been hurt badly by the family separation story, there’s still very little good news for him overall. 

1. Seth Masket on the national lessons from the nomination contests for governor in Colorado. 

2. Kim Yi Dionne on violence and Boko Haram — part of the Monkey Cage’s wonderful annual look at new work on Africa.

3. Maggie Astor reports on how Alabama has been making it harder to vote. 

4. Fred Kaplan on Trump’s upcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin.

5. And a nice comparison of Trump and Richard Nixon from my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Al Hunt. I think the case for a liberal Nixon is exaggerated — a lot of it consists of giving him more credit than he really deserves for Congressional action. And reasonable people can disagree about how large a stain Vietnam is on his foreign policy record. Nevertheless, Hunt’s main point stands: Nixon ran a serious presidency along side the illicit one. Trump? Haven’t seen any sign of it yet. 

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