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Trump Is Unlikely To Ever Be A Popular President

Trump Cabinet

As we sit here just a few days after the six-month anniversary of the beginning of the Trump Presidency, the President finds himself in something of a historically unique situation. In addition to being one of only five U.S. Presidents elected without winning the popular vote, Donald Trump continues to suffer from historically low job approval numbers.  As of today, his average job approval number according to RealClearPolitics stands at 40.1% while disapproval stands at 55.2%. On specific issues, Trump isn’t doing much better, with 44.7% approving of his handling of the economy while 45. 9% disapprove and 38.7% approving of his performance on foreign policy while 54.3% disapprove. At Pollster, the President’s overall job approval numbers stand at 39.4% approve while 56.3% disapprove. As I’ve noted before, these are the lowest job approval numbers that any newly-elected has seen since modern polling began and the lowest of any incoming President since the end of World War II. The only comparable situation during that time frame is the Gerald Ford, who saw his job approval briefly fall below 40% early in his Administration, no likely due to the twin impact of his controversial decision to pardon former President Nixon and the dismal state of the economy in the mid-1970s. Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s job approval numbers briefly dipped below 40% in 1982 as the nation dealt with the impact of a particularly severe albeit short-lived recession.

In these first six months, of course, Trump and his Administration have done many things that have helped contribute to these low approval numbers. In his first week in office, for example, Trump largely stumbled out of the gate by making exaggerated and easily disproven claims about the size of the crowd that witnessed his Inauguration and enacting a Muslim travel ban that both proved to be unpopular and found itself under attack in Federal Courts across the country. Additionally, while the President has signed a number of bills into law, most of those have been relatively innocuous bills that repeal some regulations enacted during the Obama Administration. On major policy initiatives such as tax reform or health care, there has been either no action at all or ideas proposed that have proven to be overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public. Additionally, Trump has continued to use his Twitter account to attack his usual targets in the media and spread obviously false information while at the same time undercutting the message his own Administration is trying to communicate to the public. Hanging over it all, of course, is an investigation regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and questions about ties between himself and members of his inner circle to Russian government officials, an issue that is far from resolved and unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Even without all these negatives, though, historian Michael Kazin argues in a piece in The Washington Post  that Trump is unlikely to ever see his job approval numbers turn positive:

[T]hese unforced errors don’t quite explain his inability to take advantage of a boost in economic confidence or to expand, even slightly, the passionate base that carried him to victory. The problem lies with that very victory — the one that won him not only the presidency but also 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The legacy of such deficits suggests there’s little he can do to gain the trust of the majority. American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.

The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.

As Dave Schuler notes in his post on Kazin’s article, of the other Presidents who were elected with a minority of the popular vote, the four previous Presidents who were elected under circumstances similar to Trump were John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutheford B. Hayes in 1876,  Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000. Of those four, only Bush went on to be re-elected to a second term. Adams, who had become President via the House of Representatives due to the fact that nobody running in 1824 had received a majority of the Electoral College vote, was defeated in a one-on-one rematch with Andrew Jackson in 1828. Hayes, whose election in 1876 was equally controversial due to the existence of a dispute over balloting in Florida where both major parties appear to have cheated in one way or the others, didn’t even run for re-election in 1880. Harrison, meanwhile, lost rather decisively in a rematch with former President Grover Cleveland in 1892. Bush was the exception to this rule, of course, no doubt in large part to the boost he received in his job approval numbers in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Even this then, though, Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004 was among the narrowest margins for any incumbent President seeking re-election. But a 120,000 vote win in Ohio, Bush would have lost his re-election bid.  The only incumbent President who was re-elected with a smaller Electoral College margin than Bush was Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

At least on paper, this doesn’t bode well for either Trump specifically or the Republican Party generally going forward. Absent some kind of as-yet unforeseeable event that causes a turnaround, Donald Trump is likely to remain a minority President for the entirety of his first term in office. Under ordinary circumstances, this would suggest that Republicans are likely to lose ground in the 2018 midterms, for example. Historically, in fact, the President’s party has generally lost seats in Congress in their first midterm election, and that’s likely to happen this time as well. What seems unlikely, though, is a situation where Democrats end up grabbing control of one or both houses of Congress. In the House, the simple fact is that there are unlikely to be enough House seats that are truly on the line to cause control to change in that body. So, while it’s likely that Democrats will gain seats in the House, the odds that they’ll be able to grab control away from Republicans. The Senate is a more complicated issue. While the Republican majority there is much thinner than in the House, the odds that Democrats will be able to grab even a slim majority seem low. Of the 33 Senate seats that will be up for re-election, 23 are held by Democrats, 8 are held by Republicans, and 2 are held by Independents who are caucusing with the Democrats. Of those 23 Democratic seats, ten are in states that have voted Republican in the last several Presidential elections or which went for Trump in 2016. On the Republican side, meanwhile, there is just one seat in a state that went for Hillary Clinton last year, Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada. This suggests that it’s possible that Republicans could actually gain seats in the upper chamber in 2018, or at least break even when all is said and done.

Looking ahead to 2020, the crystal ball gets murkier. Once again, the numbers don’t seem to be in Trump’s favor, and if they stay at this level and the Democrats manage to get beyond their current struggles to find a coherent message beyond being against Donald Trump, then re-election is likely to be a difficult task. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that recent history shows us that unseating an incumbent President is not an easy task. In the past fifty years, for example, incumbents have stood for re-election eight times and have lost that bid on only two occasions, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. If you add Lyndon Johnson, who declined to stand for re-election after a narrower than expected victory over Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, then that makes it three times out of nine bids for re-election. Looking back to the beginning of the 20th Century, there was only one President defeated for re-election over a period lasting from 1900 to 1968. In either case, that makes the odds of unseating an incumbent rather long at best. Perhaps Trump will be the exception that will prove the rule and become the first incumbent defeated in a re-election bid since 1992, but even if his poll numbers stay where they are it’s far too early to make any prognostications about that.

 

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    I really don’t think it matters. Polling has consistently shown that the Republican Congress is not popular, and thge Democratic Congress is somewhat less unpopular. People now start from the position of ‘sure it’s garbage but both sides do it.’

    Prior to the installation of Trump as president, Republicans were very well-rewarded for political bad behavior – a couple of government shutdowns, attempts to leverage repeal of Obamacare against a threatened default on government securities, refusal to conduct a hearing on the nomination of Garland to the Supreme Court, etc. – so it is no surprise that their president, a relentlessly unthoughtful and dishonest person, polls negatively only among non-Republicans.

    Republicans have made up their minds that as appalling as Trump is, he represents a once in a generation opportunity to rollback what they consider to be excesses of the socialist/liberal federal government. Right now they’ve got the numbers and if the 2018 mid-term elections do not change Congress, they’re eventually going to implement a very radical conservative agenda.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  2. CSK says:

    Here’s his most recent Tweet, reproduced with errors intact :

    “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?”

    Am I correctly reading this as an another attack on Sessions?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  3. grumpy realist says:

    Comment from the FT in regards to Brexit but I think also applicable to our situation:

    The fainter our memory of trauma, the greater our appetite for risk. If the analysis is bleak, then its implication is bleaker. Countries have to try bad ideas once in a while to remember they are bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  4. CSK says:

    The thing about Trump is that he desperately needs and wants to be popular and beloved, hence his pathetic appraisal of his 36% approval rating last week as “not bad.” Of course, he also characterized that rating as “almost 40%,” and it was nowhere near that.

    By the way, Axios is reporting that Trump is “pondering” replacing Sessions with Giuliani.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. JKB says:

    You can’t really tell what Trump’s approval numbers are as to support Trump is to invite reprisal, such as the winner of a makeup contest whose prize was rescinded by the minor celebrity sponsor due the winner’s support for Trump. So it would be foolish to tell some idiot stranger of your preference given the violence on the Left.

    In any case, it is certain that Trump’s popularity on paper will continue to depend upon the history written by those who chatter rather than do.

    Practitioners don’t write; they do. Birds fly and those who lecture them are the ones who write their story. So it is easy to see that history is truly written by losers with time on their hands and a protected academic position.

    Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

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  6. Franklin says:

    Two unrelated thoughts:

    1) The whole election commission thing is largely because Trump still doesn’t really believe he lost the popular vote (even though, for the last time, the popular vote is irrelevant when those aren’t the rules we are playing by). He probably doesn’t believe these disapproval numbers, either. But if he does, it can be easily blamed on Republicans who aren’t supporting him or Democrats (just in general).

    2) My other thought regards the previous Presidents who didn’t win the popular vote (which is still irrelevant). I note that we had a few re-matches in the past which behooves me to say: please do not nominate Hillary again. Nothing against her, but just no.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Not the IT Dept. says:

    So where’s my comment?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  8. Not the IT Dept. says:

    So far Trump’s record of getting things done consists of one SC appointment and re-affirming Obama’s treaty on Iran.

    Oh, and the Carrier people whose jobs disappeared and who are recognizing that they got conned – they’re not likely to give Trump any thumbs-up signs anytime soon:

    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/former-carrier-employee-slams-trump-he-blew-smoke-up-our-asses/article/2629460

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Gustopher says:

    @JKB: Yes, yes, the violence on the left… we plan on slaughtering all the Trump voters, you know. It’s what we do. Remember, we outnumber you, with out millions of illegal immigrant voters who denied Trumpy his rightful popular vote win.

    I don’t know what the beauty pageant is about, but I have learned not to trust a thing you write.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  10. Kylopod says:

    Around mid-October of last year, Doug posted a poll showing Trump nearly neck in neck with Clinton in Texas, citing it as proof that Trump was in deep trouble electorally. I wrote in response:

    I hate to throw cold water on this poll, but I suspect the undecided group is comprised primarily of Republicans who are unhappy with their party’s nominee, and if so, then it’s probable (though far from certain) that they’ll break for Trump in the end.

    Actually, it’s this factor that has worried me the most for several months–that a lot of the undecideds in the polls consist of Republican-leaning voters who are reluctant to support Trump but who probably will in the end.

    My theory turned out to be more accurate than I ever would have wished on Election Day, and I suspect it still applies today. Trump was the most unpopular presidential nominee in history, more unpopular even than his vanquished opponent, but it was based in part on there being a sizable chunk of voters who registered their disapproval of him in polls but at the end of the day still voted for him.

    What led me to this conclusion in the first place? It came from months and months of listening to the myriad of rationalizations made by Republicans who had once been critical of Trump but who morphed into apologists after he became their nominee, in the most shameful soul-selling I’ve seen in my lifetime. Most of it ended up centering on the theme “Yes, Trump is awful, but…” I was hearing variations on this even from some of Trump’s own surrogates. Huck compared Trump to Quint from Jaws–a nasty drunk, sure, but he got stuff done. (When it was pointed out to Huck what ultimately happens to Quint in the movie, Huck bashfully laughed and said “any analogy can fall apart.”) Ben Stein wrote a column in which he assailed Trump’s economic views as utterly nuts, but then he added that he was supporting Trump anyway “because I think he does personify a kind of national pride which I think has been lacking in the Obama days and would be terribly lacking under Bernie Sanders and terribly lacking under Hillary Clinton.”

    Trump was the most obviously unfit presidential contender ever to win the nomination of a major party. He was so unfit that even many of his supporters were forced to acknowledge it to some degree, but then they managed to talk themselves into thinking he was still somehow worthy of their support. It almost reminds me of the way Star Wars fans were furiously defending The Phantom Menace around the time of its release, when you got the distinct impression they were lying to themselves. (And I know that analogy is extremely unfair to TPM, which wasn’t that bad. What would be the cinematic equivalent of Donald Trump? I dunno, Armageddon crossed with a Pauly Shore flick, maybe?) Since the election, Trump’s ratings have not actually fallen; indeed, they’ve risen a bit. And while I can’t imagine him ever actually becoming popular, I can very easily imagine him continuing to house a truckload of supporters who hate him all the way to the polls.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. DrDaveT says:

    @Kylopod:

    What would be the cinematic equivalent of Donald Trump?

    Highlander sequels.

    If you’re allowing mashups, a cross of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Snakes on a Plane.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. Joan says:

    Polls’ methodologies are often skewed to get a desired outcome. Polls sometime under sample or over sample a faction to get bogus results. If the methodology is unknown it should be ignored. It is shameful that any media would would not check the methodology. It is outrageous that any media would put forth any skewed poll.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 13

  13. Kylopod says:

    @Joan:

    Polls’ methodologies are often skewed to get a desired outcome. Polls sometime under sample or over sample a faction to get bogus results. If the methodology is unknown it should be ignored. It is shameful that any media would would not check the methodology. It is outrageous that any media would put forth any skewed poll.

    Yes, we get it, President Mitt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  14. Neil Hudelson says:

    @JKB:

    Is that really what you want to go with? That conservatives are such spineless wussies that they are afraid to tell anonymous pollsters that they support the President?

    Well ok then.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  15. Kylopod says:

    @Neil Hudelson: It should be noted that shortly after the election last year, 538 threw cold water on the “shy Trump voter” theory. For instance:

    The two states that had the largest polling error for Trump were Tennessee and South Dakota, where Trump won more than 60 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Trump underperformed his polls in states where the stigma against him would seem to be strongest: deep-blue states like California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Washington.

    The entire article is worth reading in full.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  16. al-Ameda says:

    @Kylopod:

    What would be the cinematic equivalent of Donald Trump?

    “Soylent Green” comes to mind, as does “Death of a Salesman”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. Tony W says:

    Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

    – The President of the United States

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @al-Ameda:

    “Soylent Green” comes to mind

    Nah; Soylent Green used real people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Am I correctly reading this as an another attack on Sessions?

    Sessions isn’t the only Republican that the buffoon is attacking

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Lynn says:

    @Gustopher: “I don’t know what the beauty pageant is about, but I have learned not to trust a thing you write.”

    I assume he’s talking about the Kansas makeup artist who says she won a national contest sponsored by Kat Von D Beauty but was later disqualified because of her support for trump.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. teve tory says:

    @JKB:

    Is that really what you want to go with? That conservatives are such spineless wussies that they are afraid to tell anonymous pollsters that they support the President?

    Well ok then.

    Hard to say who’s the poorer Trump advocate, TM01 or JKB. They’re each incompetent in their own special ways. 😀

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. Hal_10000 says:

    Let’s take a look at how past Presidents became unpopular. I’ll start with Lyndon, since Eisenhower and Kennedy were never unpopular.

    1) Johnson was popular until the Vietnam War began to drag on.

    2) Nixon was popular until Watergate. (And Ford was unpopular thereafter probably for the same).

    3) Carter became unpopular because of the Iran crisis and a bad economy.

    4) Reagan’s bout with unpopularity, as you noted was because of a fierce but short-lived recession (which was mainly the predicted hangover from Volker reining in inflation). He later dropped because of Iran-Contra.

    5) Bush I’s bout with unpopularity was because of downturn in the economy, probably cyclical.

    6) Clinton’s bout with unpopularity was mostly because of the tax hike. That unpopularity vanished once said tax hike balanced the budget.

    7) Bush II was popular until Katrina, Iraq and the worst recession since the Great Depression (which he bore varying degrees of responsibility for).

    8) Obama unpopularity, such as it was, was mostly a response to the stimulus and Obamacare, which were unpopular at the time.

    So … here’s the thing. Nothing’s really happened to Trump yet. He hasn’t done anything yet. We haven’t gotten in a new war. The economy is doing OK. No major piece of legislation has been passed. Obamacare is still in place. He’s huffing along at <40% mostly because people don’t like him. He’s obnoxious and inept and whiffs of corruption. If something really bad goes wrong — a natural disaster, a war, a recession, a bombshell on Russia that directly implicates him, he could drop to single digits.

    Everyone says the Republican support for him is mindless partisanship. That’s somewhat true, although there’s always mindless partisanship. But if the economy goes south, his Republican support will evaporate. It’s already crumbling due to the Russia scandal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @Hal_10000:

    But if the economy goes south, his Republican support will evaporate.

    It’s a nice thought, but I’m not convinced. Any support of his that was contingent on actual outcomes, or reality in general, should already have evaporated. I think he could be standing on a pile of skulls plucking the eyes out of live puppies, and the core of his support would be saying “Well, at least he’s not Hillary…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @teve tory:..Hard to say who’s the poorer Trump advocate, TM01 or JKB. They’re each incompetent in their own special ways.

    Gotta’ figure since they keep defending a self confessed sexual pervert that TM01 and JKB use all the brains they have between their legs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Hal_10000: Johnson had the wrong strategy on Vietnam. He got bad advice and faulty data from some of his military people*.
    Carter is a very fine person, a good Christian man. He knew little about how Washington worked. The US people got the image of Iran pushing the US around, abusing our people there and seizing our property. A lot of people still haven’t got over it. Hopefully our leaders learned from that – never again.
    * read “The Generals”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  26. teve tory says:

    He’s huffing along at <40% mostly because people don’t like him. He’s obnoxious and inept and whiffs of corruption. If something really bad goes wrong — a natural disaster, a war, a recession, a bombshell on Russia that directly implicates him, he could drop to single digits.

    Bush blew Katrina, and Trump is about 10x less competent than Bush. Any disaster that befalls the country in the next few years will be maximally mismanaged, possibly by a department that, due to Cheeto Benito, isn’t even staffed. We’ll find out what the floor of his popularity is then. I’m guessing 27% 😀

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. teve tory says:

    is it sitemeter.com that is hanging? Something’s causing this site to take forever to finish loading, for about a month now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. DrDaveT says:

    @teve tory:

    is it sitemeter.com that is hanging?

    That’s the message I get from my browser: “Waiting for sm8.sitemeter.com…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. bill says:

    obama was popular, albeit ineffective. so popularity is overrated…results are better. h trump doesn’t need to make more money writing books about himself when he retires, like most democrats.
    and yes, he’s won-the denial is getting pretty creepy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  30. Kylopod says:

    @bill:

    so popularity is overrated … trump doesn’t need to make more money writing books about himself when he retires, like most democrats.

    You know who you should be telling that to? Trump himself. No one obsesses over his ratings more than he does. He’s constantly tweeting about it, trying to spin his pathetic numbers as if they’re something worth boasting about. (As mentioned earlier, last week he tweeted that his 36% rating on one poll was “not bad.”) Tell me, when did Obama ever actually boast about his poll numbers? He never did, not when they were low and not when they were high, either. So how delusional can you get that you’re actually accusing Obama of being the narcissistic, self-promoting one? Or is it that you just reflexively attack Democrats with whatever accusations you hear lobbed in Republicans’ directions? I’m half-expecting you to start claiming Obama and Hillary both wear combovers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. DrDaveT says:

    @bill:

    obama was popular, albeit ineffective. so popularity is overrated…results are better.

    Wow. Just… wow.

    I did a triple-take at that one. It’s almost as if you weren’t here, commenting, when the Do-Nothing Congress was tearing itself apart in order to ensure that Obama could not do anything.

    …Despite which he managed to fix the economy, expand healthcare to 30 million additional people, and [yeah, I can see you’ve stopped listening].

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0