The news has not been good for President Donald Trump this week.
His communications director, Hope Hicks, announced her resignation, his own attorney general publicly rebutted him and, as CNN reported Wednesday, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have been questioning witnesses about Trump’s pre-2016 business dealings in Russia.
The weekly onslaught of chaos and bad headlines, which has been a feature of the Trump administration, perhaps explains why Trump has the lowest approval rating for any president at this point in their presidency.
This is why you may not believe what I’m about to tell you: Trump is actually more popular now than he was when he was elected.
Since the beginning of 2018, six live interview pollsters have asked Americans whether they have a favorable or unfavorable (or positive or negative in the case of NBC News and the Wall Street Journal) view of Trump. In an average of the the last survey conducted by each of them, Trump’s net favorability rating (favorable - unfavorable) stands at a low -19 percentage points.
Now look at the same pollsters and their final poll on favorability ratings before the election. Trump’s net favorability rating in an average of their surveys was -27 points.
That’s an eight-point gain in favorability for Trump, although still putting him decisively in unfavorable territory.
In fact, each of the pollsters show Trump doing at least a little better now than he was before he was elected.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Trump hasn’t lost much ground since before he was elected. His popularity was already basically only the Republican base, so there wasn’t a lot of ground to lose. And voters knew of Trump’s many flaws before the election, so why would they turn they backs on him now?
But there is difference between not losing supporters and actually picking some up. It’s not unusual for that to occur when a presidential candidate wins and assumes office, but it’s far from a given more than a year into an administration. Especially for a president whose administration is as chaotic as Trump’s.
Strange as it may seem, the best way to describe the public reaction to Trump is normal. I went back and grabbed the net favorability ratings for presidents since Jimmy Carter (the first available) just before their election and compared that to their net favorability in a poll taken by the same pollster during the January or February in the year after they were inaugurated.
Three presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) since 1977 saw their net favorability ratings rise from the time they were elected to this point in their presidency. Three (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama) have seen their net favorability ratings decline. The average before Trump saw a rise of about 11 points, or very close to what Trump has seen.
Trump’s rise is likely attributable to a strong economy. The economy continues to be among his strongest issues. It’s plausible that if Trump were able to keep his focus on the economy instead of chaotic actions like berating cabinet officials, then his popularity would rise even higher. He’s also perhaps benefiting from the fact that presidential popularity ratings tend to revert (over the longterm) towards half the electorate liking and half the electorate disliking a president.
It’s not all good news Trump though: He’s still very unpopular. And midterm elections are almost always about the party in power. Voters in 2018 will likely then be basing their congressional vote choice on how they feel about Trump, which is bad news for Republicans.