Comparative Approval Ratings

Is Trump really an outlier?

How should we understand Trump’s approval numbers? This was a question that was on my mind this morning after listening to the 538 podcast this morning and then reinforced by James Joyner’s post earlier today. A major question seems to be how to assess the general stability of Trump’s (dis)approval. The assumption being that we should see more variation in approval in response to events.

I am not so sure that the stability is as odd as is presumed, at least in the current era of polarized parties.

Let’s look at Obama’s first term (via 538, and the green line is Trump’s approval up to the time of this post)::

Obama comes into office with an obvious, somewhat traditional honeymoon period, and with a lot of goodwill early on. But as that fades he has approval in a pretty steady range, even during the Great Recession and heading into the mid-term elections that brought us the Tea Party.

(Note that Trump did not enter office with any goodwill and never tried to build any–plus Obama won a decisive popular vote and EC victory, while Trump won via a PV/EV inversion).

Even Obama’s full 8-years doesn’t show a ton of movement, which is interesting given that we did recover from the Great Recession during this period of time, had basic “peace and prosperity,” and there were no major scandals.

Indeed, he spent a lot of time underwater in approval in his second term (despite the fact that many readers likely look back on that period quite positively).

I recognize this is a cursory look at the topic, but I think that a lot of discussion of the relative stability of Trump’s approval tends to think that volatility is to be expected, however I think the look at the Obama era is telling in this regard.

Indeed, the last almost 12 years suggests that relative stability in presidential approval may be a new norm, and that that is a reflection of the polarized period in which we live. Confirmation of that hypothesis would require further study, of course.

Bush’s 8 years better fits the notion that presidential approval ought to be responsive to dramatic events:

Of course, 9/11 was especially dramatic, making direct comparison difficult (and while I recognize the death toll of Covid-19 far outstrips that of 9/11, these are radically different events).

While I fully agree that we would like to think that the mismanagement of the pandemic, for example, would have a greater effect on Trump’s approval rating, the reality remains that partisan dividing lines are what that are and at the moment Trump’s approval is pretty much measuring the same thing as the national popular vote polling.

And in regards to the pandemic, I would further note that polls do show disapproval of his handling of that matter, it just doesn’t move that main approval line. For example (via ABC): Deep skepticism for Trump’s coronavirus response endures: POLL

Trump’s approval for his handling of COVID-19 lands at 35% in the new survey, which was conducted by Ipsos in partnership with ABC News using Ipsos’ Knowledge Panel, compared to 65% who disapprove. This marks the fourth straight poll with Trump’s COVID response approval hovering in the low-to-mid 30s since early July.

So, it isn’t that actions don’t affect opinion of Trump. The real problem may be asking the approval rating to account for all of this. Really, the question “do you approve of the job the president is doing” translates very much into “will you vote R or D this November?” And, again, in an era of partisan polarization, it is difficult to see Trump getting lower than the lower 40s.

Keep in mind that even Mondale won 40.6% of the vote in 1984 (the EC outcome made it look worse than it was, popular-vote-wise). And that was at a less polarized period in our national history.

Even so, Trump’s approval as of this afternoon is 43.1% and the 538 polling average has him at 43.4%. Those numbers are not radically different from Mondale’s final 1984 figure.

Maybe things are not quite as extraordinary as some might make them out to be, in terms of mass behavior. Indeed, I think a lot of the (very understandable) anxiety makes it difficult to look at the numbers dispassionately, as does general alarm (again, quite understandable) as to what Trump says and does on a daily basis.

But, again, while there is clearly a subset of the 43.1% that approves of him that really approves of his nonsense and white nationalism, but there is also a large chunk that pays only passing attention (and filtered through the gauzy lens of FNC and like outlets) and/or who simply aren’t going to vote Democratic for whatever reason and hence default to approval of their team.

Ultimately, if Biden beats Trump nationally by 6 or 7 points, that will actually demonstrate that public opinion did, in the aggregate, react negatively to Trump’s bad behavior.

And really, isn’t the main concern not that public opinion is against Trump, but that the Electoral College will thwart that opinion?

Regardless, there is evidence to suggest (looking back at Obama approval) that maybe we in an era wherein we should expect relative stability in presidential approval, suggesting that what it is really measuring is general partisanship. This strikes me as, at a minimum, a reasonable hypothesis.

UPDATE (James Joyner): This additional graphic from the 538 link is illustrative as well:

While we definitely saw more extreme shifts with other Presidents within my political memory, we see that attitudes were similarly hardened during Bill Clinton’s tenure. Which does seem to indicate that Trump isn’t quite as unusual as he seems. In terms of attitudinal stability, he’s a “normal” hyper-polarizing President.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Presidency, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. de stijl says:

    I refuse to comment on the shape of that graph.

    If you decide it looks phallic that is your choice alone.

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  2. JohnMcC says:

    Just brief note to point out that this is not new; Herbert Hoover got 40% of the popular vote in ’32.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    All that discussion in earlier threads of Trump’s unusual stability in the polls and you come in with data to say it’s normal. Eyeballing Gallup for all presidents back thru Truman I’d say that you’re right, but it’s more true lately than it used to be. If you look at the passions of 9-11 compared to the popularity of Iraq War I and compare W Bush’s mild recession to HW’s disaster, you’d expect W to see a bigger swing in approval, but the swing is about the same. This would be consistent with a view that partisanship is evolving to be more extreme.

    As to whether this is partisanship, tribalism, or a cult of personality, I’d have to say “yes”. Seems mostly like different labels for basically the same thing. If I’m loyal to Trump while he leads my party and represents my worldview, am I partisan, tribal, or prone to hero worship?

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  4. Joe says:

    A post like this is one of the main reasons I follow this blog: while circumstances seem experientially dramatic, they are quantifiably not all that different. Different, yes, but in smaller parts than they feel. Trump’s presidency is experientially a chaotic nightmare, but quantifiably it is below the norm. Period. End of sentence.

    I think that is true, which may be why I think that at all. But these posts are a guide to putting our experience into the perspective of the quantifiable.

    So, thanks.

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  5. Lounsbury says:

    But, again, while there is clearly a subset of the 43.1% that approves of him that really approves of his nonsense and white nationalism, but there is also a large chunk that pays only passing attention (and filtered through the gauzy lens of FNC and like outlets) and/or who simply aren’t going to vote Democratic for whatever reason and hence default to approval of their team.

    The added bold is useful as the politically engaged tend to forget their own outlier status (which I would include my own self in that, including the forgetting).

    It resolves perhaps back to the “tribal” issue and in that relation the inevitable reaction of an ethnic group, or part of it, in the face of change while also significant portions facing perceived status threat. If we presume our primate band roots are the foundation for our social-abstraction castles in the air, then perhaps some useful reflexions on the defusing of a degree of such deep-seated reaction and tension could be wise for a political strategy. Insofar as hand waving it away and denigrating likely not to produce the most optimal result

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  6. James Joyner says:

    I posted an update to the post in lieu of a comment because I needed a graphic to illustrate the point.

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  7. @gVOR08:

    but it’s more true lately than it used to be

    We are in an especially polarized period.

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  8. @gVOR08:

    As to whether this is partisanship, tribalism, or a cult of personality, I’d have to say “yes”. Seems mostly like different labels for basically the same thing. If I’m loyal to Trump while he leads my party and represents my worldview, am I partisan, tribal, or prone to hero worship?

    I think they overlap and combine into the ~43% we are seeing.

    As I have tried to note in these conversations before, there are really going true believers (for various reasons) and there are those who are going to vote R because they simply won’t vote D and the candidates don’t actually matter all that much.

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  9. @James Joyner: I had originally included the other graphs in what was getting to be a very long post.

    But yes, useful.

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  10. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This is one of the frustrating things reading some of the comments here. It isn’t one group that maintains Trump’s floor.

    The cult of personality angle has always struck me as kind of overboard. To some extent, this is true of all prominent figures. Political parties, Presidents, actors, musicians, and athletes all cultivate cult like behavior. Hell, brands as well.

    Just look at comment threads on news sites, Twitter or Reddit. AMD vs Intel/Nvidia, PlayStation vs. Xbox, Springfield vs. Shelbyville. There’s little distinction between political boards and any other topic in terms of vitriol.

    There’s a tendency to reduce to one explanation when attempting to explain differences between millions of people. Are there Trump culties? Sure. But I don’t think they’re much different from rabid PlayStation fans or Ron Paul supporters or Bernie die-hard.

    Any consistently pro-life President will get unshakable support from a sizable percentage of white evangelicals. Combine each category of mostly single-issue voters with run of the mill partisans and you get a decent floor of support. Variations between candidates with the same platform can likely be chalked up to aspects of presentation, especially the ability to create a sense of urgency.

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  11. @Kurtz:

    It isn’t one group that maintains Trump’s floor.

    Exactly!

    I have tried time and time again to try and point this out, such as differentiating between rally going MAGA hats and, as you note, hardcore pro-lifers, or just people who vote R because that is what they do.

    There is no singular cause.

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  12. Kylopod says:

    @Kurtz: @Steven L. Taylor: I think one of the reasons the cult vs. partisanship debate (which struck me from the beginning as angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin) is so hard to resolve is that it’s nearly impossible to probe people’s motivations that deeply for behavior that’s functionally the same. You don’t know how many Trump supporters I encountered in 2016 who said, “I’m not voting for Trump. I’m voting against Hillary.” For the vast majority of such people, I don’t believe for a second that they’d have failed to vote for Trump no matter who the Dem had been. “Hillary was worse” was nothing more than an excuse for their own partisan behavior. They may not consciously realize it. I think there’s a strong element of self-deception involved. And they are as a rule so brainwashed by media that told them how awful Hillary was that they simply didn’t perceive how they were being manipulated toward a position that they were, on some level, embarrassed to be associated with. Now there are certainly people out there who openly and unabashedly declare their undying love for Agent Orange–but there are a lot of other people who think they aren’t embracing Trump, just making a pragmatic choice between two evils, but in practice they’ve become essentially part of the cult. I’ve listened to these people talk, and they are as a rule so deeply mired in rationalization they can’t even admit to themselves what they’ve become.

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  13. @Kylopod:

    I think one of the reasons the cult vs. partisanship debate (which struck me from the beginning as angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin) is so hard to resolve is that it’s nearly impossible to probe people’s motivations that deeply for behavior that’s functionally the same.

    I think this is true to a degree, but I think it isn’t just angels dancing on the head of pin kind of stuff.

    We know, as a matter of long-term scholarship, that partisan ID is a huge factor in voting choice, even beyond anything specific to do with candidates. This is established political science, and is empirically verifiable. It is why I have found the “they are all in a cult!” business to be a problem.

    It is not a sufficient explanation for why we are where we are, and hence my near-constant pushback on an overly simplistic formulation.

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  14. @Kylopod:

    “Hillary was worse” was nothing more than an excuse for their own partisan behavior

    Isn’t automatically rejecting the other party’s nominee as “worse” nothing more than a reflection of partisanship (I mean, not even really an excuse for, but a manifestation of)?

    Don’t all the consistent D-voting folks around here assume that the R is worse than the D by default because, after all, for a D-voter D is always better than R?

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    We know, as a matter of long-term scholarship, that partisan ID is a huge factor in voting choice, even beyond anything specific to do with candidates. This is established political science, and is empirically verifiable. It is why I have found the “they are all in a cult!” business to be a problem.

    Yes, political science. Not philosophy or psychology or theology or primatology, political science, one academic perspective. People don’t make political decisions, they make personal decisions based on their beliefs, their fears, their strengths or weaknesses as humans. One of the decisions people make – in Nazi Germany, in David Koresh’s compound – is the decision to surrender the self to a charismatic leader. When that happens you are free to call it partisanship, and I assume that works within the confines of your academic specialty, but it does not address motivation or state of mind or personal predicates.

    People act out of fear, greed, love, hate, insecurity, all modified by education, temperament, etc., And 5,000 years of recorded history tells us that when the predominant emotion is fear, people turn to a leader. They surrender their individual will because they feel themselves to be powerless and are thus, in their minds, surrendering nothing. It’s a net plus for them. Sure, they’re impotent but Dear Leader is all-powerful and thus, they acquire a fraction of that power.

    You and I may prefer this or that politician. Neither you nor I is prepared to follow blindly. You and I assess a politician’s behavior on an ongoing basis. That politician may or may not continue to have our support, based on their actions. That is not what’s happening with Trump. Trump’s followers don’t judge or evaluate, they accept. It’s an emotional, psychological and religious choice. ‘Republican’ is not their identity, that’s just a flag of convenience, their identity is Trumpist. Which is why Republican intellectuals fled the party and the party is now nothing but Trump.

    Line 99.9% of Republican Senators, Congresspeople and Governors up on one side. Put Trump on the other side. Demand that people choose A or B. Do you have any doubt that the overwhelming majority of so-called Republicans would choose Trump? That isn’t partisanship, that is a cult of personality.

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  16. @Michael Reynolds:

    Yes, political science. Not philosophy or psychology or theology or primatology, political science, one academic perspective.

    Yeah, the one that studies mass political behavior.

    Unlike all the others you list.

    To be honest, I continue to find it a bit odd that you regularly come to a blog written by political scientists, but then denigrate the discipline in regards to an area that it most clearly encompasses.

    (And don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to run you off–I just find the approach odd).

    You are certainly free to see it however you like. You are fundamentally wrong (which I know you think is true of my position, since you have directly told me so) and the data and history show it, along with decades of study, but you are entitled to your view.

    The answer to the question: why does Trump have a chance to be re-elected is not that 43%ish of the population are Trumpist in a cult. Nor was that why he was elected in the first place.

    Nor, I would note, am I seeking to answer the question about why a given person votes for Trump. I am asking and answering a specific set of questions linked to mass political behavior and the way in which institutional parameters influence that behavior.

    Our system is largely pre-determined because it creates a binary choice and most people already know what their choice will be (for reasons I have written about before). The empirical evidence on this count is undeniable.

    Line 99.9% of Republican Senators, Congresspeople and Governors up on one side. Put Trump on the other side. Demand that people choose A or B. Do you have any doubt that the overwhelming majority of so-called Republicans would choose Trump? That isn’t partisanship, that is a cult of personality.

    They currently choose Trump (assuming I understand in context what that is supposed to mean) because he is the highest elected official in the party and it is hard to win elections when you reject that person.

    This really isn’t complicated.

    The main flaw in your entire thesis is that you insist it has to explain everything about all Trump voters.

    For example, this is beyond dramatic:

    They surrender their individual will because they feel themselves to be powerless and are thus, in their minds, surrendering nothing. It’s a net plus for them. Sure, they’re impotent but Dear Leader is all-powerful and thus, they acquire a fraction of that power.

    Do you really think that most people who will show up in November to vote for Trump think of this way? Because there isn’t any evidence to support that position.

    . Trump’s followers don’t judge or evaluate, they accept. It’s an emotional, psychological and religious choice. ‘Republican’ is not their identity, that’s just a flag of convenience, their identity is Trumpist. Which is why Republican intellectuals fled the party and the party is now nothing but Trump.

    No, most Trump voters vote Trump because of some combination of liking lower taxes, fearing “socialism,” being pro-life, thinking that Dems are anti-religious (or anti-business), being afraid of minorities, believing the “law and order” bullcrap, and a host of other reasons.

    It is the way politics works, and it is not new. Trump is especially awful in the context of American politics but less so in the context of broader world history (Bolsanaro is a contemporary example, and Berlusconi comes immediately to mind as well).

    We are also at a point in broader world politics, in the context of the aftermath of the Great Recession and other factors (such as the fact that neoliberal economics, i.e., globalization, hasn’t produced what it promised), wherein right-wing nationalism is on the rise (we see it in Europe in particular). Trump is part of that broader trend, unfortunately.

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  17. @Michael Reynolds:

    You and I may prefer this or that politician. Neither you nor I is prepared to follow blindly. You and I assess a politician’s behavior on an ongoing basis. That politician may or may not continue to have our support, based on their actions. That is not what’s happening with Trump.

    But that’s not what happens for most people in most elections, Trump or not.

    The thing is, and you know this, most people don’t do what you note that you and I do. What they do, if they vote, is vote based on party.

    And if you are honest with yourself, you do too, especially for down-ballot offices on California’s sometimes very lengthy ballot.

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  18. @Michael Reynolds: I will say this: folks who are deeply into the QAnon business are certainly behaving in a cultlike fashion.

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  19. JohnMcC says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Been watching politics pretty closely for 50yrs and have a BA that includes a major in Psychology (as it was taught 50yrs ago). I do not agree that every one of Mr Trump’s adherents follows the President like Jim Jones’ followers did their leader and am interested in how to solve the problem that Michael presents: How can that many people have such a strong allegiance to such a wretched person?!

    But my understanding of human behavior and motivation just doesn’t go where the solution to that problem seems to lay. You say many years of academic research identifies ‘partisanship’ as the solution. OK. Can you refer us to a not-hopelessly-intricate explanation of this ‘partisanship’? Don’t need a complete or deep and time-consuming opus on your part (imagine you’re a busy fellow!). But some pointing finger or signpost would make me feel like I’ve gained a lot.

    And by the way–your caveat regarding ‘QANON’ resembling a cult? Just saw polling that 55% of self-identified Republicans have either ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of belief in the ‘Q’ fantasy. That doesn’t mean they would all stay and shoot it out with the FBI like Koresh’s folks did, of course, but it takes ‘partisanship’ beyond the question of Yankees-vs-Red Sox which is where I understand ‘partisanship’ to be.

    And thanks! for your patience.

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  20. @JohnMcC:

    How can that many people have such a strong allegiance to such a wretched person?!

    I think an awful lot depends on what “strong allegiance” means.

    I think it matters, too, what the allegiance really is to. Is it to him, or to the party? A lot of it is rationalizing allegiance to man who is head of the party.

    At any rate, I am explaining how it could be that en masse a man like Trump can still get 43%ish support.

    You say many years of academic research identifies ‘partisanship’ as the solution. OK. Can you refer us to a not-hopelessly-intricate explanation of this ‘partisanship’?

    Let me refer back to these posts (which isn’t exactly what you are asking for): The Simplest Post on Partisanship I Can Write, A Simple Question about Partisanship, and Yet Another Question about Partisanship.

    To provide a bit of an answer: we organize politics via parties. It is the main filter by which most people determine for whom they will vote. That simple fact, which is a durable pattern of behavior for most people, explains most of Trump’s vote. Most people would vote for a ham sandwich if it had the right letter by its name (I would say I exaggerate but have you looked at who the president currently is?).

    This is true even for people who understand politics. I have been a reliable D vote since 2008, and I am 99.9% sure I will vote D in 2024. If I, a political scientist who studies democracy and writes on politics on a daily basis use this guide, how much more so do people who only pay passing attention to this stuff? (And it is reinforced in our system because we only have two choices).

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  21. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Line 99.9% of Republican Senators, Congresspeople and Governors up on one side. Put Trump on the other side. Demand that people choose A or B. Do you have any doubt that the overwhelming majority of so-called Republicans would choose Trump? That isn’t partisanship, that is a cult of personality.

    They did that. Trump won ~44.9% of the vote during the primaries. Not 9 out of 10. Not even half. 44.9%. The fact that the majority supported him against Clinton is evidence of the strength of partisan identity over anything else.

    Which is why Republican intellectuals fled the party and the party is now nothing but Trump.

    Not all of them did.

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  22. al Ameda says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This is true even for people who understand politics. I have been a reliable D vote since 2008, and I am 99.9% sure I will vote D in 2024. If I, a political scientist who studies democracy and writes on politics on a daily basis use this guide, how much more so do people who only pay passing attention to this stuff? (And it is reinforced in our system because we only have two choices).

    I’ve been a reliably (D) voter for most of my voting life. I used to occasionally vote (R) down ballot if there was a candidate who was a liberal Republican, but I stopped doing that years ago because, it increasingly became the case that those liberal (R)s didn’t vote as independently as I’d hoped.

    Today, I have no reason whatsoever to vote (R) no matter how ‘moderate’ the appearance, Susan Collins is my case-on-point, Rob Corker and Jeff Flake too. They talked concern, but walked with Trump.

    These days there is so little value to be had in ticket splitting for statewide or national races. I feel that even a ‘liberal‘ (R) generally subscribes to the policies of the (R) Party at large so I feel that a vote for that ‘liberal’ (R) will be a wasted vote.

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  23. @al Ameda:

    Today, I have no reason whatsoever to vote (R) no matter how ‘moderate’ the appearance, Susan Collins is my case-on-point, Rob Corker and Jeff Flake too. They talked concern, but walked with Trump.

    These days there is so little value to be had in ticket splitting for statewide or national races. I feel that even a ‘liberal‘ (R) generally subscribes to the policies of the (R) Party at large so I feel that a vote for that ‘liberal’ (R) will be a wasted vote.

    Which is one hallmark of polarized parties–there is just no efficacy in being on the margins, so best to go all-in on one party or the other.

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  24. JohnMcC says:

    OK. Guess I’ve got it; having had to step back and try to see from 10,000 ft. I was a College Young Republican in west Tennessee when Kevin Phillips published ‘The Emerging Republican Majority’. I remember being amazed at the in-depth discussion of electoral/political history of a vast stretch of the US. And at the durability of voting patterns. I recall much more recently the book ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’ and the discussions that followed. OK. Copy that.

    When I’ve been in the market for a new car my feet have led me into the Ford dealer which is what my father and his father did. I’ve been a loyal fan of the teams of my University for 40+ years even when they suck huge rocks. But I had no problem saying good bye to the R-party when I got to know what kind of man and President we had elected in ’68. The difference always seemed obvious to me.

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