1. Trump’s approval rating started off historically bad. It’s only gotten worse.
Trump marks his first anniversary as president more unpopular than he was when he took the job. That’s not unusual ― many first-term presidents see their numbers drop.
What’s unusual about Trump is just how little goodwill he began with. Unlike his recent predecessors, he took office with Americans equally split between approving and disapproving of his job performance, according to HuffPost Pollster’s average of public polling ― and that marked a relative high point.
Within a month, Trump saw his disapproval ratings begin to rise as those who’d previously been neutral became increasingly less likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Trump’s first months were marked by “no honeymoon period to speak of and approval ratings far worse than any president has received this early in his tenure” Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones wrote in April, after Trump posted the worst first-quarter ratings for any president elected to his first term since World War II.
A year later, surveys are consistent in showing that a majority of the nation is unhappy with the president’s performance. About 55 percent disapprove of the job he’s done, per Pollster’s average as of Saturday morning, while just under 41 percent approve.
That’s an improvement from December, but these are still easily the worst numbers for a first-year president since pollsters first began keeping track. Trump’s standing is similar to President Richard Nixon’s months into the Senate hearings on the Watergate scandal. And, according to data collected by Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll, while individual pollsters’ assessments of Trump vary, nearly all find him lagging behind his immediate predecessor, former President Barack Obama.
2. Trump’s numbers are relatively stable.
In the last six months, Trump’s approval rating has remained between 37 and 42 percent in Pollster’s average, neither soaring nor dramatically crashing.
“Trump’s approval ratings aren’t just noteworthy because they are low,” CNN’s Ryan Struyk noted Wednesday in an analysis of Gallup data. “They are also the flattest, least fluid approval ratings for any elected president since modern surveys started.”
“During his first year, Trump’s approval ratings have stayed within a narrow 10-point range ― from 45% at his inauguration to a low of 35% multiple times over the last several months,” Struyk said. “Former President Barack Obama’s had moved 18 points, George W. Bush’s had moved 39 points and Bill Clinton’s had moved 22 points to this point in their tenures. In fact, only Lyndon B. Johnson had less movement in approval polling during his first year in office.”
That could indicate that Trump may be close to his natural floor of support for the current political situation (the not-inconceivable development of something like a foreign policy crisis or an economic slump would, of course, change the calculus.)
But it may also mean there’s little room for him to rebound to a neutral or positive rating. Most Americans who disapprove of Trump say that they don’t see anything positive about his record, and that there’s almost nothing he can do to change their minds.
And although it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact causes of the smaller approval fluctuations for Trump in 2017, there are some clues. Trump saw distinct dips in support following Republican failures to pass a health care repeal bill, while months of stories about his campaign’s relationship to Russia seemingly did less to move the needle ― possibly in part because his supporters were more troubled by the former than the latter.
By contrast, his numbers ticked up during last fall’s hurricane season, perhaps both because he saw some of his best ratings as president for his handling of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and because the weather-focused news cycle kept his name out of the headlines more than usual.
3. Opinions of Trump are deeply polarized, but he inspires more robust opposition than support.
Survey after survey conducted last year showed Americans to be immensely polarized on practically every political issue, with the clearest example being opinions of Trump himself. Opinions on many of the actions Trump has taken ― for instance, concerns about his administration’s relationship with Russia ― remain more or less intractably divided along party lines. That polarization is another factor in the stability of Trump’s ratings.
Americans’ willingness to support a president across the aisle has shrunk dramatically in recent years. That trend accelerated markedly under Trump, who has reasonably strong ratings within his own party but remarkably little backing from the opposition.
Last spring, we noted that Republicans were 78 points likelier than Democrats to approve of Trump’s first-quarter job performance. Between Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, that gap was never above 50 points.
Although it’s entirely true that most of the president’s voters are sticking with him, it’s also true that “most” is not the same as “all.” And notably, Trump’s detractors are far more unified ― and vociferous ― than his supporters.
Nearly 60 percent of Trump voters strongly approve of his job performance, according to YouGov/Economist tracking data ― but nearly 90 percent of Clinton voters strongly disapprove.
Similarly, strong disapproval of the GOP’s failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its successful bid to pass tax reform has consistently outstripped the strong approval of such efforts.
4. Views of the economy are way out of whack with views of the presidency.
Throughout 2017, pollsters found Americans generally happy with the state of the economy, but less happy with Trump.
“If you take the president’s scores out of this poll, you see a nation increasingly happy about the economy,” pollster J. Ann Selzer told Bloomberg in July. “When Trump’s name is mentioned, the clouds gather.”
That’s unusual: Economic views are traditionally among the strongest drivers of presidential approval. As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten noted last fall, past presidents dating back to Jimmy Carter had higher ratings on overall job approval than they did for their handling of the economy. Trump breaks that pattern in a major way.
It’s perhaps understandable that the public wouldn’t give Trump much credit for an economic revival that clearly predated his presidency. Nearly a year into Trump’s term, voters are still more likely to say that Obama is responsible for the state of the economy.
But Trump’s approval rating, Gallup found, is 9 to 14 points lower than the public’s views of the economy would predict.
5. Trump’s low approval rating probably matters for this year’s elections.
It’s still a little too soon to be talking about Trump’s re-election prospects, but his unpopularity poses a more immediate problem for the GOP: The president’s party tends to do worse in midterms when the president’s ratings are low.
“Historically, when voters are unhappy with a president, they take it out on his party during the midterm elections,” The Weekly Standard’s David Byler wrote this week. “Trump’s approval rating and the Republican share of the generic congressional vote typically aren’t far off each other. This suggests that voters who disapprove of Trump are unwilling or at least hesitant to support the congressional GOP.”
And while good economic indicators would normally be a boon to the GOP, Trump’s unpopularity, and his tendency to dominate the news cycle, may overshadow them. This year’s midterms are still months away, and there’s plenty of time for things to change ― several recent surveys have shown the Democratic lead in congressional polling starting to taper.
But as things stand, Trump’s position at the head of the party seems unlikely to do down-ballot Republican candidates many favors.
“It’s hard to get any traction on anything, so far, other than the president personally,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff told NBC.
A few more roundups of the polling on Trump’s first year:
Pew Research: “As Donald Trump’s presidency approaches the one-year mark, 41% say Trump will be an unsuccessful president in the long run, while 23% say he will be successful and 34% say that it is too early to tell.”
CBS’s Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus, Kabir Khanna and Anthony Salvanto: “A year after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, he continues to receive historically low and highly partisan approval ratings, despite widely positive views of the economy. He gets at least some credit for the economy, but most Americans don’t feel they’ve personally benefitted from his policies – only 22 percent think they’ve been directly helped.”
YouGov’s Kathy Frankovic: “The President ends his first year in office with an approval rating higher than he has seen in months. While a majority of the public continues to disapprove, 42% in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll approve of the President’s performance, a level not seen in these poll since February 2017.”
Gallup’s Justin McCarthy: “Americans are split in their views on how President Donald Trump’s performance in office compares with their expectations for him. About one in five (21%) say he has done better than they expected, while more, 35%, say he’s done worse. The largest segment, 44%, says his performance has been about what they expected.”
NBC’s Mark Murray: “President Donald Trump ends his first year in office with 39 percent of Americans approving of his job performance, according to the latest national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll — the lowest mark in the poll’s history for any modern president ending his first year.”
The Los Angeles Times’ David Lauter: “As the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration approaches on Saturday, the president’s support has eroded, his opposition has gained energy and his party faces bleak prospects for the midterm elections in November, according to a new USC-Dornsife/Los Angeles Times nationwide poll.”
NPR’s Jessica Taylor: “As President Trump approaches the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, a majority of Americans think that his first year in office has been a failure and that he has divided the nation.”