Trump May Be Even Less Popular than it Seems

The 45th President polls worse than other prominent Republicans.

Cornell political scientists Peter K. Enns and Jonathon P. Schuldt argue that President Trump’s popularity ratings, which are already quite low considering that state of the economy, likely overstate actual public sentiment toward him. The rationale is reasonable enough:

[I]n this hyper-partisan era, presidential approval numbers have become increasingly polarized and don’t move around all that much, so they may now say more about which “side” people are on (pro-Trump or anti-Trump, Republican or Democrat) than voters’ actual evaluation of how the president is doing.

So, they take a slightly different approach:

[We] have worked to develop a hopefully more nuanced approach to measuring presidential approval, where we ask respondents how favorably they feel toward Trump relative to other notable Republicans. By not explicitly asking respondents whether they approve or disapprove of the president, we avoid forcing respondents to take sides, as they do in the standard presidential approval question. Instead, respondents from both parties evaluate Trump in comparison to other Republicans, like former President George W. Bush, the late Sen. John McCain, McCain’s former running mate Sarah Palin, Vice President Mike Pence, and former President Ronald Reagan. (We selected these specific Republicans because they range from the highly regarded Reagan, who is often viewed as the voice of modern conservatism, to Palin, the former Alaska governor whose time in national politics was much shorter and less influential.) We’re most interested in how the public views Trump when they aren’t asked about the president in isolation. Do respondents rate him as highly as other Republicans? Less highly? And does this help clarify whether partisan cheerleading is masking respondents’ actual assessments of Trump in the traditional presidential approval question?

They’ve now done this twice:

Our first survey was conducted before the 2018 midterm elections (July 3 to July 12) and our second survey was conducted soon after the Dec. 18 House vote that formally impeached the president (Dec. 20 to Dec. 22), but in both instances, likely voters rated Trump toward the bottom of our list of Republicans.

Before the midterms, Trump’s favorability rating was statistically indistinguishable from Pence’s, and only Palin was rated less favorably. Following impeachment, Trump was even lower relative to the other Republicans we asked about. Not only is he the least popular president to run for reelection since Gerald Ford according to polls asking the standard presidential approval question, but in our measure, he is now also rated less favorably than his vice president. He’s also essentially tied with Palin for the least favorable Republican on our list, which is notable because when respondents are asked the traditional favorability question, Palin’s numbers are even lower than Trump’s — in 2016, an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that just 30 percent of the public had a favorable impression of the former governor.

The overall numbers look like this:

And it looks like this broken down by party identification:

It’s interesting that the 2008 ticket of McCain-Palin is now anathema to those identifying as Republican. In McCain’s case, the late Senator has come under a lot of fire from Trump and the Republican media complex (Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, most notably). And Vice President Pence is viewed rather unfavorably across the board.

Even Enns and Schult admit that their methodology raises some questions:

As with all survey data, there is uncertainty around these estimates. For example, although it appears that independents rate Trump slightly lower than Palin and Pence, their uncertainty bands overlap enough that we can’t say for sure that Trump rates the lowest of those three. But the bottom line is that the president appears even more unpopular than previously thought, and more disliked than the standard presidential approval question is able to reveal. Although the electoral implications of Trump’s unpopularity and impeachment remain to be seen, the data we do have isn’t promising for Trump.

Still, the findings are interesting. I’m not sure they tell us much about how people will vote in November. But it’s interesting that Trump is viewed particularly unfavorably, even compared to other Republicans, by both Independents and Democrats alike.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    I recall when Trump had a favorability rating of 35%, and Tweeted that it was “almost 40%, which is not bad!”

  2. This strikes me as an interesting, and believable, finding.

    However, when it comes to using approval polling as a predictive for voting, I think that the the mainstream approach is more useful still as it captures the general polarization of the electorate (and the seeming immutability of many voters’ positions). Although, the alternative assessment may mean that GOP enthusiasm, and therefore turnout, will be lower in 2020.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    To me the most interesting thing is Palin’s unpopularity with Rs. From starbursts to almost down the memory hole. Hope she saved her grift money, looks like it’ll be pretty thin in future.

  4. CSK says:

    @gVOR08: That drunken brawl Palin and her family engaged in after they crashed a private party in Sept. 2014 probably discouraged a lot of her diehard followers. And then Trump replaced her in their affections in June 2015.

  5. @gVOR08: It is interesting, given that Trump is the intellectual heir of Palin.

  6. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Trump is Palin on steroids, to use a tiresome cliche.

  7. @CSK: Trumps is often a tiresome cliche.

  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Irrespective of how Rethugs, truly feel about Tiny, the tribalism that has infected the body politic will ensure that the vast majority of Rethugs will hold their noses and vote for Trump or possibly, as you point out stay home. They won’t be voting Dem regardless of the nominee. The vocal anti-trump conservatives, despite their protests, will eventually fall in line with whoever the Dems nominate, because no one can be as bad as Tiny.

    …given that Trump is the intellectual heir of Palin.

    Of course, we hope you are using the term “intellectual heir” loosely.

  9. Kit says:

    Barbarism is not some primitive technology and naïve cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past.
    — Philip Rieff

    The attitude towards the past is the central element of any ideology.
    — Yury Afanasyev

    What can be said about those who wish to turn back the clock to the 50’s but who simply forget their own political past from just one decade ago?

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    intellectual heir of Palin.

    Sounds like a Zen koan. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Is vacuum a thing?

  11. @gVOR08: That was sort of my intent.

  12. DrDaveT says:

    Fascinating. “Trump is my least favorite among all of the people I would vote for no matter what.”

  13. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I almost linked this article in the open thread.
    I’ve been a regular reader of 538 since it was a blog. They’re approach to polling data is quite good. I have learned a lot from their methodology and explanations of how polling works.

    But I am a little unsure what do with this article or the panel surveys they have been doing this cycle.

    Reading the comments there is kind of depressing, because you see how smart people in difficult fields make political decisions.

    I suspect that some people in engineering fields display an arrogance toward social sciences in that they think it’s just knowledge you can pick up by reading on the weekends.

  14. @Kurtz:

    I suspect that some people in engineering fields display an arrogance toward social sciences in that they think it’s just knowledge you can pick up by reading on the weekends.

    This is the attitude of a lot of people. They think watching the news makes them experts.

  15. Kurtz says:

    Re: Pence

    Cruz has a face that for most people causes revulsion.

    Pence has a face that ought be univerally distrusted. His resting face and his demeanor remind me of a sleazy used car salesman.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: Palin started showing her age. Women are not allowed to age the same way men are, and they get a bigger boost for being hot.

    Before she was in the national spotlight, the Wonkette blog would refer to her as a GILF (Governor I’d Like (to) Fornicate (with)). That was a large chunk of her popularity, along with a shared fierceness towards people they disliked.

    Men are petty stupid things. Even more so than women most of the time.

  17. mattbernius says:

    @gVOR08 & @Steven L. Taylor:
    I expect that we’ll see a similar trajectory for Trump once he leaves office. The only reason that he might not fall as low is that he actually was elected President — though, if he loses reelection, I expect he’ll go the route of Carter or GHWB and become a popular joke.

    Of course, he’ll have a cottage Right Wing Media industry propping him up for years after he leaves office with a long line of books (selling with diminishing return) about how he was truly the greatest Modern President (since Reagan) and we didn’t know how well we had it under him and that the only reason he failed was everyone was against him and he lost reelection for our sins.

  18. @mattbernius: Actually, I very much think that will be the case. Once he no longer is the way for the GOP to win, he will fall from grace.

  19. mattbernius says:

    While her looks might have been part of the story, the worst thing that happened to Palin was that the left stopped paying attention to her and going after her. Which meant that people on the right no longer had to reflexively defend her. And once that happened, then the bloom was truly off the rose.

    This isn’t unique to the right. You like the bums on your team the most when those bigger bums from the next city over are disrespecting them.

  20. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    If he makes it to a second term, the fall from grace will take longer (provided the Republicans don’t lose the Senate).

    If he goes down to defeat, then things will happen faster — though the challenge is that the Right Wing Media complex is so invested in him, its going to take them a long time to figure out how to find the right way to distance them. Hence why, for a few years the “real reason” he will have lost is that *everyone* (media, Democrats, the deep state, RINOs, etc) was against him.

    The bloom was already off GWB and GHWB when they lost reelection (GWB lost the RWMC in 2006 and the “I’m done carrying water” moment when the House and Senate went to the Democrats). I don’t see RWM abandoning Trump during the election (even if things are going off the rails).

  21. @mattbernius:

    If he makes it to a second term, the fall from grace will take longer

    Well, sure–by definition.

    I just don’t see him being some revered figure like Reagan. And, in general, ex-presidents have a lot less influence than seems possible when they are in office.

  22. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It’s possible that Trump might remain a heroic figure to Cult45, since, unlike their previous icons, Sarah Palin and before her Pat Buchanan, Trump actually did become president.

    And…they never threatened Civil War 2.0 on behalf of Palin and Buchanan.

  23. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, sure–by definition.

    What I meant was that Republicans and, in Trump’s case, the Conservative Media Complex, abandoned GW while he was still in office (after the 2006 election). Likewise, as memory (admittedly hazy memory) serves, early Right Wing media had more or less abandoned (or was at least distancing itself) from GHWB before the 96 election.

    I could be completely wrong, but I honestly don’t see the same thing happening with Trump if he lands a second term (outside of a major event like a recession or war).

    Just to be clear, what I’m saying is that, if he loses this year, the reassessment of his presidency will happen in a much shorter amount of time (relative to the election) than if he makes it to a second term. If he’s a two-termer, barring major event, his decline in popularity will happen much more slowly.

  24. Teve says:
  25. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Tiny won’t go quietly into the good night as the typical ex prez does, whether he loses or has a second term. He’s going to continue to tweet and try to keep cult45 together for Don Jr, or Ivanka. That will keep the populist pot boiling in the GOP and keep it from returning to the business of hoodwinking the rubes and sucking up to the 1%. He’ll only stop inserting himself into public affairs when he croaks or the dementia finally overcomes him. There’ll be enough of the RWM that will keep him at the top of their web pages, that he won’t go away.

  26. Dutchgirl says:

    Seeing how Trump has stomped all over many conventions and un-written rules of how to behave as candidate and president, I hesitate to assume he’ll behave as other former presidents. He *needs* his rallies.

  27. DrDaveT says:


    I expect that we’ll see a similar trajectory for Trump once he leaves office.

    I expect we’ll see Trump convicted of multiple felonies by various state courts, once he leaves office. I take it you don’t think this is likely?

  28. Kurtz says:


    The last name on the list of examples was a youtube channel by a dude who goes by “Godrules.” First comment claims that the government is hiring “crisis actors” in preparation for the gun rights rally on the 20th.

    The linked article is by a guy whose bio includes the phrase, “U.S. Occupied Great State of South Carolina.”

    Someone here recently said something like they wished the Union had just let the South go. Sometimes I think the same thing.

    Then again, I sometimes wish people who consider their State to be occupied territory would have the balls to mount a rebellion or an insurgency.

  29. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve: I are one, an ME. I hadn’t been aware of any correlation with Creationism, but engineers do tend to conservative. I tend to write it off to being educated without being educated. By which I mean a lot of very narrow education.

    Your link also notes doctors as prone to Creationism. That would surprise me, as they do have grounding in biology. But they also have a very narrow education, critical reasoning being suppressed in favor of rote. I see them as the best trained monkeys in the world. Last I saw doctors ran about 90% Republican. That may have changed as educated suburban types leave, but I suspect it’s still pretty close to 90%.

  30. Mike in arlington says:

    @Kurtz: South Carolina, too small to be a republic, too large to be an insane asylum.

  31. Jax says:

    @Sleeping Dog: And it’s truly the most depressing aspect of all of this. As someone who has hated looking at/listening to/hearing anything about Donald effing Trump since the early 90’s….it’s enough to drive a gal to drink!

    He will NEVER shut up, and even after he’s dead, we’re gonna have to listen to the creepy offspring.

  32. Teve says:

    @gVOR08: I went to an engineering school, my three roommates were engineers, I’ve known lots of engineers. Many are fine outstanding people with excellent brains. there’s also a subtype who think their hundred and ten IQs are hundred and ninety IQs, and that they are Rational and Logical and unfazed by your silly emotional illogic. Steven den Beste was a good example.

  33. mattbernius says:

    I am not holding my breath.

    His kids have to go through mandatory training about how not to defraud charities. At any other time that might have killed someone’s political career. But today that doesn’t mean a damn thing.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve: Unfamiliar with den Beste. On Googling one of the top hits is a post here at OTB by Dr. Joyner noting his death. Read a couple of the hits and learned nothing but that he was an early blogger and apparently a pro Iraq war trooper in the 82nd Chairborne.

  35. MarkedMan says:

    @Jax: one thing I am certain of: Donald Jr. and Eric will end up as nobodies. They have no charisma, are dumb as a box of rocks and, most importantly, could not pull off the con as their father can.

    Ivanka will have a career of sorts for as long as she remains good looking. One case where sexism actually helps.

    I’m almost as sure that only Ivanka will have money once her father croaks (because Jared). Eric and DJTJ will end up leading RWNJ safaris it the equivalent.

  36. Kurtz says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    My bet would be goes with what has been reported as his original plan, start a TV network. Right before the 2016 election, Financial Times reported that Kushner had met with an investment firm to seek funding for a network.

    It dovetails with reporting that suggests that no one in the campaign, including Donald, thought he would win. And, crucially, that he didn’t want to win. I can’t remember where I read it, but he even said something along the lines of, “I’m fucked” when the race was called.

    Maybe he buys OAN and renames it TrumpTV. Maybe he starts his own.

    I have wondered for a while what effect campaign rhetoric has over time. Trump didn’t say anything new. He based his platform on the language and talking points the GOP (and their media network) used to excite the base during campaigns and move the edge of the overton window to the right between elections. It turns out, decades of priming the audience pays dividends that you may not even want.

    If all this is accurate, Trump was trying to swindle the GOP and leverage his base into WingnutNews™. In the end, he swindled himself into a job he never wanted and for which he knew he was unqualified.

    This is all a long way of saying that I doubt Cult45 goes away. What malignant narcissist would be able to live without the level of attention Trump has received after having tasted it? What nutjob would crawl back to Romney after the thrill of MAGA victory?

    It may end up being for the better. If the reporting is true that a large number of prominent Republicans have privately expressed real concern over Trump’s behavior, then there is a decent possibility that they run toward the center and try to pick up non-progressive Democrats. Maybe the parties re-align around an axis that makes sense:

    Progressive-Liberal | Conservative-Libertarian

    In this alignment, the wings of each party have issues in common; think back to Harris and Paul co-sponsoring a bill to reform federal Cannabis law.

    In Trump, the Republican party (the professionals, not the voters) got what they said they wanted, not what they actully wanted. And really, the only voters (the ones who would consider Limbaugh an intellectual) who actually believed in the rhetoric are the same ones who supported Trump in the primary.

    Shhhh, just dream with me.

  37. grumpy realist says:

    @gVOR08: When I was taking flying lessons, my flight instructor made many comments about the “doctor in a Bonanza” trope common among GA flight instructors. (Rich doctor who buys expensive plane with wood panelling, then demands lessons on learning how to fly.) According to him, they HATED trying to teach doctors–considered them in general to be arrogant SOBs who wouldn’t listen to what their flight instructors told them.

    Engineers at least will nod their heads wisely and say “ah, so let’s not do that, then” when told “you don’t ever want to do this because there’s a high risk that the plane will develop vibrational resonances along the wings.” (He loved teaching me flying because he never had to explain any of the aerodynamics. In fact, I was explaining things to him.)

  38. Kit says:


    I expect we’ll see Trump convicted of multiple felonies by various state courts, once he leaves office. I take it you don’t think this is likely?

    I’m rather surprised that everyone expects Trump to simply walk free after he leaves office. While I wouldn’t want to make any exact predictions given his age and the general spinelessness of Democrats, I would be willing to place a small wager that Trump will go down as a martyr, revered far more than St. Reagan ever was. While I hope that I’m wrong, I don’t see how a country elects such a man, tramples over its own history, and then calmly turns the page after the next election.

  39. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: I’ve been aware of the Doctors with Bonanzas thing forever. For those unaware a Bonanza was a fast, luxurious private plane. Hotter and more sophisticated than most at the time. The automotive equivalent is a hot Porsche, and the number of doctors and others who’ve wrapped their new Porsche around a tree.