Can Trump Recover?

Compared to recent presidents, only George H. W. Bush was as unpopular when standing for re-election as Donald Trump is today. Bush lost.

Recent opinion polls, especially ones taken after the government shutdown had worn on for a few weeks, show Donald Trump considerably “underwater” in job-approval polls. On December 21st, the day before the shutdown, the running average on Trump’s job approval numbers at FiveThirtyEight put him at 42.2 percent approving, and 52.7 percent disapproving, for a “net approval” score of -10.5 (=42.2-52.7).

Since then the gap between Trump’s approval and disapproval scores has substantially widened. Today, January 27th, FiveThirtyEight reports his approval score has fallen three points to 39.3 percent, while his disapproval score has increased substantially to 56.0 percent. His net approval score has now fallen to -16.7.

Few recent Presidents have plumbed these depths of public opinion as Donald Trump. This chart presents the net approval scores of recent Presidents as measured by Gallup at three different times in their first terms: when inaugurated, at the time of the first midterm election, and once again at the time of the next Presidential election.

Only George H.W. Bush has stood for re-election with a net approval score below negative twenty like Trump’s current figure. Bush, of course, lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. George W. Bush managed to be re-elected with a net approval score of zero. The remaining Presidents in the chart all had positive approval scores at the time of re-election and were sent back to Washington for a second term.

Donald Trump has not seen a net approval score above zero since a week or two after he was inaugurated in 2017.  It is hard to fathom how he can recover even to a net zero score like George W. Bush had in 2004, never mind reaching into positive territory. Both Clinton and Obama managed to win re-election with net approval scores in the single digits.  Even that relatively low hurdle seems pretty distant for Donald Trump at this point.

One reason we are unlikely to see a substantial movement in Trump’s direction is the large number of people who report “strongly” disapproving of Trump’s performance. The newest Washington Post poll shows that most peoples’ opinions of Trump fall into either the strongly approve (28 percent) or strongly disapprove (49 percent) categories. Only nine percent report they “somewhat” approve of his performance, and another nine percent “somewhat” disapprove. 

Obama could recover from his 2010 “shellacking” because fewer people chose the “strongly disapprove” option when asked about him prior to the 2010 midterms. Trump has fewer chances to bring people back to his side because opinions about him are much more locked in stone.

Donald Trump could, of course, confound all his observers as he did in 2016. However it is unlikely he will be able to run against as unpopular a candidate as Hillary Clinton turned out to be.