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.

Every President except Trump began his term of office with a positive net approval score that deteriorated over the next two years. George W. Bush showed the smallest decline because his approval had received a thirty-point boost after the 9/11 attacks.   Being popular upon inauguration is no guarantee of continued popularity as Ronald Reagan and, especially, Barack Obama discovered. However they were both able to recover and reach positive territory in the Presidential election that followed.

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. 

The Grim Reaper of Primary Campaigns

Observers of the 2020 primaries expect a huge crop of Democratic candidates to declare before next February’s Iowa caucuses. History tells us that few of those hopefuls will still be contending for the nomination by mid-March.

Pundits have routinely suggested that the field for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination might range upward of a dozen candidates. As of today, January 22, 2019, a total of seven candidates have announced their intention to run — Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Richard Ojeda and Elizabeth Warren. Wikipedia lists another twenty people who have “publicly expressed interest” in running including Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders. The field could certainly exceed a dozen candidates before the Iowa caucuses take place on February 3, 2020.

The Democrats saw eight contenders in the 2004 primary race that was eventually won by John Kerry. Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Barack Obama in 2008 fended off six other competitors in their paths to winning the nomination.

Most of these competitors fell by the wayside early. In 1992, 2004, and 2008 just two candidates remained by March 15th. In 1988 Al Gore and Paul Simon continued their contests against Dukakis until April, while Jesse Jackson maintained his symbolic quest into the Convention .

This drastic winnowing of candidates reflects a variety of forces. All the campaigns compete for funds and staffers. Candidates who fail to make a strong showing in the early races see their access to contributions and staff dry up.

These resource limitations are exacerbated by the need to attract and maintain media attention. While it might be possible to cover a dozen candidates at the outset, media organizations inexorably must target their resources to a much smaller number of candidates deemed “viable” by the press and party professionals.

So while we may see long lists of potential Presidential candidates lining up in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is hard to imagine there being more than three or four candidates remaining in the race after Super Tuesday, March 3rd.

For comparison, here is the equivalent chart for the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries. Fully seventeen candidates took to the stage in the Republican primary debates in late 2015. By March 15th just three candidates remained standing — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. A month later Trump stood alone.