By Nate Cohn
Donald Trump won the presidential election as the least popular candidate in the polling era. He assumed the presidency with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president.
And his ratings have continued to fall. The question isn’t whether it’s bad for Trump and the Republicans, but how bad.
Usually, presidents ride high at the start of their terms. After one month, presidents average around a 60 percent approval rating. Even re-elected presidents with considerable baggage, like Barack Obama or George W. Bush, still had approval ratings around or over 50 percent.
The worst data for Trump comes from live interview telephone surveys like Pew Research and Gallup, which pin his approval rating among adults around 40 percent.
The most recent Gallup survey, the first conducted entirely after the resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, has Trump’s approval rating down to 38 percent, with 56 percent disapproving (a differential of minus 18).
Trump’s ratings aren’t just bad for an incoming president. They’re bad for a president at any point in a term.
Here’s what it took for past presidents to reach an approval rating differential of minus 15 or worse:
- Harry Truman reached it in September 1946, after serving in office for more than a year. His ratings had been slipping since the end of World War II, in part because of the pain of demobilization and a wave of labor strikes. His party lost 55 seats in the midterm elections that year.
- Dwight Eisenhower’s approval rating and differential never fell as low as Trump’s current ones. Neither did John Kennedy’s.
- Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, and his approval rating dropped below 40 percent, with a differential of minus 18, in an August 1968 poll. He was facing strong criticism over the war in Vietnam.
- In the midst of the Watergate scandal in July 1973, Richard Nixon refused to turn over White House tapes. By mid-August, Gallup registered Nixon at a differential of minus 18 and an approval rating of 36 percent. Leading up to his resignation a year later, his ratings were mired in the 20s.
- Gerald Ford didn’t win re-election, and his ratings were often weak – he fell into the upper 30s – but a majority of Americans never disapproved of his performance in Gallup surveys, and he didn’t come close to reaching minus 15.
- Jimmy Carter was dragged down to differentials greater than minus-20 by midsummer 1979, after the Iranian revolution brought a new round of oil shocks.
- A recession with 10 percent unemployment was enough to drag Ronald Reagan’s approval rating to 35 percent by early 1983, with a minus-21 differential, although that level of unpopularity didn’t last long.
- A weak economy cost George H.W. Bush in early 1992. The unemployment rate peaked at 7.8 percent, and he was facing a third-party challenge from Ross Perot. In June of that year, his differential was greater than minus 15.
- Bill Clinton’s ratings fell into the upper 30s in June 1993, as the debate over whether to allow gays in the military peaked in Congress, but his disapproval rating didn’t go over 50 percent in that period. He fell to around a minus-15 differential in Gallup Polls in September 1994, just after his attempt at health care reform was declared dead. Two months later, the Democrats lost control of Congress.
- Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 status on Aug. 28, 2005. A few days before, Gallup released a survey showing George W. Bush’s approval rating down to 39 percent, with a differential of minus 16. The Iraq War and high oil prices had taken a toll on his standing.
- Obama’s approval rating finally fell below 40 percent in August 2011, with differentials of around minus 15 and slightly worse. It was when the economy was still staggered after the Great Recession, just after the debt-ceiling crisis and well after the Democrats lost control of Congress.
So no, not great company. It is especially striking how low Trump’s ratings are given the state of the national economy.
But there are at least a few reasons for Trump and the Republicans to think things aren’t quite as bleak as Gallup, Pew and the history of presidential approval ratings might suggest.
For one, there are reputable polls with more favorable findings for Trump. A recent Fox News poll of registered voters gave Trump a 48 percent approval rating. Registered voters are whiter and older than all adults, which explains part of why Trump fared better in the Fox poll. But it doesn’t explain it all; the Pew Research survey gave Trump a 42 percent rating among registered voters.
Similarly, online surveys have consistently shown Trump with a higher approval rating than those conducted by telephone. On average, Trump’s ratings have been 10 points better in online polls.
It’s not the first time that live interview and online surveys have split over Trump’s popularity. He did better in online surveys throughout the Republican primary, leading many to speculate that there was a hidden Trump vote of poll respondents who were afraid to admit their support to a live interviewer – a phenomenon known as social desirability bias.
But the results didn’t quite back up the theory in the end. Trump won the primaries by the comfortable margin predicted by live interview telephone surveys, not by the landslide implied by online polls. And the gap between online and live interview pollsters faded during the general election. Trump fared better in the final live interview polls than the final online polls. The live interview polls also came closer to the mark in the national popular vote.
Does that mean the live interview polls are right this time? Not necessarily. In general, taking an average of polls is a safer way to go. By that measure, Trump’s approval rating is in the low-to-mid 40s.