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Story highlights

Recent polls indicate President Trump's approval ratings are at historic lows

Julian Zelizer: But he continues to maintain the loyalty of his base, which will prove crucial in the next election cycle

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a New America fellow, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

Ordinarily a president whose polls show approval ratings at historic lows at this point in a young administration would be in trouble. But President Trump has reason to feel confident about his latest numbers. He is still doing extraordinarily well with his supporters: 96% of those who voted for him say they would do it again.

The polling paradox has been a subject puzzling pundits throughout the weekend. How can the polls show that so many voters don’t trust him, don’t like him and don’t approve of how he is handling the job of president, yet his standing with the people who voted for him remains steady and strong? Isn’t this inevitably a disastrous political path? With numbers like these, isn’t it impossible for him to win re-election in 2020?

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The simple answer is no. It is possible to see how this political strategy can work. Nothing has really changed since the campaign. All the things President Trump does that anger large portions of the electorate – his fiery rhetoric and impulsive behavior, his willingness to employ the language of the schoolyard bully on Twitter, his ongoing attacks on everyone else as the source of his problems – are exactly what excites the base.

They voted for the antihero who would take on the world and defy all political and social convention. When President Trump does the things that so many voters hate, his base cheers him on. That’s his appeal.

And there is a method behind the madness. Democrats should remember, before they get too cynical, that this strategy worked in the 2016 presidential election. The Trump method depends on extraordinarily enthusiastic support from his base, which includes some disaffected Democrats, combined with the impact of intense partisan polarization in the electorate.

The first part of the mix ensures that President Trump will continue to have a strong ground game. During election time, he will be able to mobilize his supporters to put up lawn signs, organize rallies, register voters and spread word about the “greatness” of their candidate in a way that really matters during presidential campaigns. For all the attention on television spots and Internet advertising, getting out the vote is still crucial.

The second part of the mix relies on the power of partisanship in the modern political era to guarantee that Republican voters will still vote for the Republican candidate regardless of who is at the top of the ticket. The effect of intense partisanship is to make sure that red voters dislike the blue candidate more than anyone else.

In other words, no matter how much unease there is with Trump’s methods and his policies, the White House is betting that come election time Republicans won’t be able to stomach the thought of a Democratic president either. Whoever the candidate is for the Democrats, the Trump campaign will turn him or her into a caricature of corrupt, broken-down establishment liberalism in the same way they did with Hillary Clinton, tapping into that partisan animosity that runs so deep in the electorate.

Those same methods will also keep his supporters, including Democrats who voted for him in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, loyal to the Republican ticket. Even if President Trump doesn’t have much to show for the first term outside controversial executive actions and missile strikes overseas, these base voters will point to those actions as a measure of success and simultaneously say the lack of legislation was not his fault anyway; it was the fault of a broken Washington establishment, a rigged news media and a corrupt electorate that was biased against him. When you subscribe to a conspiratorial world view, any failure can easily be explained away.

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If pundits read the recent polls and dismiss President Trump because of the historically low numbers, they will be making the same mistake they did in the fall election. They will be underestimating the way that partisan polarization drives this electorate regardless of who the candidate at the top of the ticket is. And they will be downplaying the ways in which President Trump’s anti-establishment, reactionary and aggressive style appeals to significant swaths of the electorate.

For President Trump, there are many reasons to look at the recent polls numbers and smile.