No, Trump Isn’t Above 50%

Let's just say Rasmussen is an extreme outlier.

President Donald J. Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Friday, July 10, 2020, en route to Miami International Airport in Miami
Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

The popular aggregator Memeorandum pointed me to a story at Red State with the headline “Rasmussen Says Trump Just Hit the ‘Holy Grail’ of Reelection Numbers.” Even with my skepticism of both Red State and Rasmussen, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued to take a look.

After a lead-in packed with lies and absurd claims, author Nick Arama gets to the headline factoid:

. . . . Rasmussen is reporting that Trump just hit the ‘holy grail’ of reelection numbers, according to the Washington Examiner.

The president’s approval rating had been on an upward trend. But now it just jumped three points, from 49% to 52%. Polls have also tightened, but it’s measures like the approval level that have been more accurate over time than random polls. As Gallup has noted in the past, “all incumbents with an approval rating of 50% or higher have won reelection, and presidents with approval ratings much lower than 50% have lost.” That’s why getting over 50 right before the election is considered like reaching the ‘holy grail.’

Rasmussen isn’t the only poll which has him over 50%. As we previously reported, Zogby had him at 51% among likely voters.

So, once upon a time, I was a believer in Rasmussen and Zogby polls. I seem to recall that they were more accurate in 2000 and 2004* than the bigger-name competition. Mostly, because their likely voter screen did a better job of factoring in Republicans’ higher likelihood of actually turning out to vote.

But, in recent years, they’re simply the polls Republicans look at to convince themselves that the world is not what it really is. Outlets like FiveThirtyEight don’t even include downgrade** them in their aggregation. They explain,

The ratings also allow us to measure pollster performance over a large sample of elections — rather than placing a disproportionate amount of emphasis on one or two high-profile races. For instance, Rasmussen Reports deserves a lot of credit for its final, national poll of the 2016 presidential election, which had Hillary Clinton ahead by 2 percentage points, almost her exact margin of victory in the popular vote. But Rasmussen Reports polls are conducted by a Rasmussen spinoff called Pulse Opinion Research LLC, and state polls conducted by Rasmussen and Pulse Opinion Research over the past year or two have generally been mediocre.

We should expect Rasmussen to look much more like the other polls in the final week, thus allowing them to claim to have gotten it right, while in the meantime raking in the big bucks from conservative outlets for good news polling.

RealClearPolitics, the granddaddy of the poll aggregators and one with a notable but modest Republican tilt, includes Rasmussen’s numbers. Even though I follow them pretty closely, though, I was surprised at Trump’s resurgence, let alone passing the majority approval threshold. Alas—big surprise—Rasmussen is an absurd outlier:

As you see, Rasmussen is indeed included in the RCP index. And, yes, it shows Trump with 52 percent approval. But note that every other poll in the index shows Trump underwater by at least 8 points. Rasmussen is 12 to 20 points more favorable to Trump than every other poll! Indeed, Trump is so far underwater that RCP has him minus 9.4 even including Rasmussen in their average!

Which, of course, is the whole point of looking at indexes rather than individual polls. An aggregate picture is simply more likely to be accurate than a single poll. And here’s the thing: Trump has literally never been at 50 percent in the RCP average since taking office:

His approval rating of 47.4 percent on April 1—yes, April Fool’s Day—of this year was his high water mark—and he was still four points underwater that day.


*Zogby came to fame nationally by out-polling just about everyone in 1996 and did quite well in 2000 and 2004 as well. He eventually became “the worst pollster in the world in Nate Silver’s estimation after shifting from quality telephone polls to cheap internet polling with unscientific opt-in subjects. Rasmussen did poorly in 2000 but quite well in 2004 and 2008.

**Operating from memory, I had FiveThirtyEight excluding Rasmussen altogether. It turns out, they merely assign less weight.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kylopod says:

    Outlets like FiveThirtyEight don’t even include them in their aggregation.

    That isn’t correct. They include them, they just weight them as being of mediocre quality (C+ currently) with an R bias, and factor that in.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod: Ah. I was going off memory.

  3. CSK says:

    I’m pretty sure that the final Rasmussen presidential tracking poll in 2012 predicted that Romney would win, 49-48. That was quite wrong, although they defended themselves as being within the margin of error.

  4. Kylopod says:

    I’m pretty sure that the final Rasmussen presidential tracking poll in 2012 predicted that Romney would win, 49-48.

    Gallup’s final estimate was the same. But Gallup, unlike Rasmussen, published a mea culpa after the election and promised to look into their methodology to see what went wrong. On top of their other problems, Ras brags a lot and either ignores its failures or makes excuses for them.

  5. @Kylopod:

    Ras brags a lot and either ignores its failures or makes excuses for them.

    Indeed. Plus, as James notes, right-wing media tout the poll constantly, but then ignore the errors.

    It is more grift than anything else.

  6. BTW: the last poll of voting intention by Rasmussen had Biden +3 (that was just two days ago).

    That is still more pro-Trump than almost all (all?) other polls, but it shows (I think) that in the area wherein they know they will be more criticized (polling the election instead of polling approval) they want to be a bit more pro-reality.

  7. And FWIW, “The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Friday, sponsored by Liberty Nation, Conservative News Where Truth Matters”

    As they used say on the Marvel Comics letters page: ‘nuf said.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    Rasmussen should be taken about as seriously as Trafalgar…in other words, not much at all…

  9. Kylopod says:

    @An Interested Party: I gave my critique of Trafalgar a couple of weeks ago. I think it’s even worse than Rasmussen (and it is rated lower by 538).

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: What’s interesting is that both Zogby and Rasmussen were legitimately doing good work for years. But, yes, I think the grift took over. The combination of being early adopters of internet-driven polling and the lure of the Fox News celebrity proved too lucrative, I guess.

    Additionally, I somehow didn’t know until today that Rasmussen and his father were the founders of ESPN.

  11. There’s a man named Bill Black that describes a thing he calls “control fraud” where a group or individual with more desire than integrity gains control of a previously trusted institution. They use it to advance narratives that are to their advantage.

    The reason that this is bad, is that it leads to bad information and poor outcomes. Control fraud was a big factor in the Great Recession – rating companies became beholden to the banks who wanted certain vehicles to have the top ratings, with lots of money riding on it.

    This is what you describe happening to Rasmussen and Zogby, too. And yeah, it’s why it can’t be excused as “business as usual” – it ends up being bad for everyone, except the few it is specifically designed to advantage.

    The Trump administration does this more openly and frequently than one normally sees. But I’m sure they didn’t invent it. Just learned it by watching.

  12. Raoul says:

    In the last Virginia governor’s race, Rasmussen had it as a dead heat, Northam won by 9.

  13. de stijl says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    When I was in the mortgage banking industry the rating services became 100% captured.

    In the lead up to 2008 it was total bought-and-paid-for absolute bullshit.

    Pools sold for way more than they should’ve. Firms actively silenced their risk management folks. It was disgusting predatory behavior where top tier firms were selling junk priced as prime and cake-walked around who held the worst portfolio when it all came to account.

    Capitalism unchecked would ruin us. It was pretty close for a few months there.