The Underpinnings Of Donald Trump's Approval Rating

02/10/2017 05:50 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2017
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Donald Trump begins his term in office with the the lowest job rating for a new president since polls started tracking presidential approval in the 1950s. And nearly all public polls, including SurveyMonkey’s national tracking, are already showing a slight downturn in Trump’s approval rating since his inauguration.

SurveyMonkey’s most recent national poll shows 46 percent of adults approve of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president, and 52 percent disapprove, down from a 48 to 50 percent approve-disapprove rating in his first week.

Some of the initial down-tick may be a natural progression, as some who start out expressing a near-neutral opinion begin to harden their impressions in the very first days of a president’s term.

However, political science forecasters and other observers are already pondering the inevitable question, “how low can Donald Trump’s approval ratings go?

The answer is ultimately unknowable, of course, since it is still very early in Trump’s term and major, persistent movement in presidential approval tends to follow the direction of the economy, U.S. involvement in wars and foreign policy crises and, sometimes, high-profile presidential scandals. That said, additional findings from the latest SurveyMonkey national poll help provide greater insight on the initial impressions that keep it from falling further.

One striking characteristic of Trump’s initial job rating is the relative intensity of disapproval. In our most recent full week of tracking, for example, far more Americans strongly disapprove of the way Trump is handling his job (41 percent) than strongly approve (29 percent). That gap means that Trump’s overall 46 percent approval rating includes 17 percent who only “somewhat approve” of his performance.

As noted in our analysis of the first SurveyMonkey poll of the Trump presidency, that softer support rests on a combination of hope and partisanship. Among those who only somewhat approved of Trump during his his first week, 73 percent said his inauguration made them feel hopeful, but only 15 percent said they were excited and only 12 percent were proud. The majority of these soft approvers are Republican.

In the second week of the Trump presidency, we asked a national sample of adults to select from a list of personal characteristics and qualities and tell us which apply to President Trump. They could select “all that apply.”

Overall, the traits Americans apply most readily are “stands up for what he believes in,” (44 percent), “can get things done” (38 percent), and tough enough for the job“ (36 percent). At the opposite end of the spectrum, traits like ”honest and trustworthy“ (17 percent), ”shares your values“ (20 percent), ”inspires confidence“ (21 percent) and ”cares about people like you” (22 percent) received far fewer selections.

Of course, a significant number (41 percent) apply “none” of these positive qualities to Trump. Among Democrats and Americans who disapprove of Trump’s performance as president, few are willing to associate any positive traits to the new president.

Among Trump’s soft supporters, the gap is especially pronounced between an appreciation for his outspoken toughness and desire to get things done, on the one hand, and a lack of honesty, empathy and the ability to inspire on the other.

Better than two thirds (68 percent) of those who only somewhat approve of the President say he stands up for his beliefs, and almost as many say he is tough enough for the job (60 percent) and can get things done (59 percent). The soft approvers are far less confident, however, about his ability to keep promises (38 percent) or perform as an effective manager (34 percent), and even fewer (near 20 percent) associate qualities like empathy, shared values or inspiration with the new president. Just 11 percent of the Trump’s soft approvers say “honest and trustworthy” applies to him.

On a more direct question, Americans divide almost evenly on the question about the competence and effectiveness of the Trump administration. Just over half (51 percent) rate the Trump administration as very or somewhat competent so far “in its role of managing the federal government,” while 48 percent say it is not too or not at all competent. Again, not surprisingly, most of those who only “somewhat approve” of Trump as President are also tend to say his administration is only somewhat rather than very competent (68 vs. 23 percent).

Taken together, these results mirror the aspects of Trump’s character highlighted during the campaign and emphasized in the first few weeks of his presidency.

One of the themes of new administration, as the NBC News Politics team recently noted, is how “Trump picks fights with, well, almost anyone.” Those stories help reinforce the perception of his toughness and outspokenness.

The downside of these “sprays of attack,” as CNN’s Jake Tapper called them, are the “sprays of falsehoods coming from the White House” that accompany them. These controversies help further reinforce negative perceptions about Trump’s honesty forged during the campaign.

A second theme has been the flurry of initial executive actions that helped drive the sense, especially among Republicans, that Trump can get things done. But note that relative softness in perceptions of effectiveness among Trump’s least committed supporters. As the NBC Politics team points out, executive actions aside, the Trump team has made little progress so far on his “big ticket agenda items (Obamacare repeal and replace, tax relief, paying for that border wall).”

Again, it is very early in the Trump presidency and the long term trends in his approval rating will be influenced by the direction of economy and by war, peace and scandal, or the lack thereof. However, if the initial flurry of executive action gives way to gridlock and legislative stagnation, perceptions of Trump’s ability to “get things done” may atrophy, and with it, his overall approval rating.

Methodology: This SurveyMonkey Tracking poll was conducted online February 1-5, 2017 among a national sample of 8,851 adults ages 18 and up. Respondents for this survey were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Data for this week have been weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States. Detailed breakdowns of the results can be viewed here. This article is cross-posted to the SurveyMonkey Election Tracking blog.

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