Trump’s unpopularity

Nice take from Seth Masket:

Zaller [reviewing evidence around Clinton and Lewinsky] concludes that “The public is, within broad limits, functionally indifferent to presidential character.” Though Republicans seemed convinced that mounting evidence against Clinton’s character would  generate a massive political backlash against him, their efforts to remove him from office found little public support. In fact, Clinton remains one of the only presidents to leave office more popular than when he entered.

Can the lesson from the Clinton years also be applied to Trump? The economy under Trump bears some similarity to what it was late in Clinton’s term, with unemployment under 4 percent and consumer sentiment near historic peaks. As Ezra Klein noted a few months ago, Trump is far less popular than he should be given the conditions of the economy.

How much less popular? Monkey Cage editor-in-chief John Sides offered an interesting take on this, noting that. from the 1960s through the 2000s, there was a pretty strong correlation between economic performance and presidential popularity. Judging from this, Trump is around 20 points less popular than he should be…

So this leaves us with two divergent conclusions about Trump’s mysteriously low approval ratings.

  • First, Trump’s own behavior—the tweeting, the bigotry, the insults, etc.—is suppressing his approval ratings. Yes, Clinton showed us that voters are indifferent to presidential character, but as Zaller reminded us, this indifference was “within broad limits.” It’s possible that Trump’s daily assaults on presidential norms lie outside those limits.
  • The second option is that, thanks to party polarization, presidential approval is now unaffected by economic performance.

To me, the first explanation seems more plausible. The results of the 2016 election strongly suggested that the economy still plays a strong role in people’s political evaluations. And it’s not like the nation wasn’t polarized during George W. Bush‘s presidency, which did suffer politically when the economy soured.

This all suggests Trump’s own behavior is costing him and his party dearly…

If Trump were, as the Monkey Cage’s Sides suggested, 20 points more popular, Republicans could expect to lose 23 fewer seats in the House of Representatives. That could easily spell the difference between continued Republican control and a Democratic takeover.

Of course, when one pays attention at all it seems kind of insane that around 40% of the public still supports Trump, but as depressing as that figure is (honestly, if any person ever deserved single-digit approval…) it really does show that Trump is not teflon and is very much sucsceptible to political reality.  He may only drop down to 30% if he shoots someone in broad daylight on 5th Avenue, but those numbers are really bad for a president and really bad for his party.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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