Diagnosing the state of President Donald Trump’s political health should be a simple matter. The story that the traditional metrics tell is straightforward.
On a good day for him, Trump’s approval rating might crack 40 percent. But a more typical day lately will put him in the mid- to high-30s, while the worst day, so far, had him plunging to 33 percent. Since his inauguration, Trump’s approval in Gallup’s daily tracker has never exceeded 46 percent, and he only hit that number once — during his first week on the job.
By any historical standard, these numbers are politically catastrophic. And maybe that’s just what they are.
What complicates them, though, is how Trump became president in the first place.
Recall some of the dire polling he faced as a candidate. More than 60 percent of voters didn’t think he was qualified to be president; not even 20 percent thought he had the temperament and personality to serve; more than half of Republicans said they weren’t satisfied with him as their nominee. On Election Day, 60 percent of the electorate said it didn’t like him.
By any historical standard, these were also politically catastrophic numbers, and yet, well, Trump is in the White House. In 2016, the numbers didn’t mean quite what we thought they did.
As narratives of collapse take shape around Trump’s presidency now, the campaign should at least serve as a cautionary tale. It may look like his base is crumbling — and maybe it is — or maybe we’re living through a new version of what happened last year.
Consider the newest round of NBC polling from the three states that put Trump over the top. In Michigan, his approval rating is 36 percent, and in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin it’s 33 percent. This looks brutal and it feeds the perception that Trump’s base is abandoning him. But is it different from his standing in these states during the campaign?
Obviously, he wasn’t president then, so there are no job approval ratings for comparison. But we can look at Trump’s personal popularity, and as Ryan Struyk shows, it turns out it’s pretty much the same now as it was last fall.
In each state, his favorable rating is in the low to mid-30s, close to where it was during the campaign. Back then, this was taken as a sign Trump would fall short in the Rust Belt; instead, he became the first Republican since the 1980’s to win these three states.
Similarly, there’s polling now that shows Trump’s approval rating slipping among his fellow Republicans. Are they abandoning him? Or is this just another version of what we saw last year when his negative rating among Republicans looked alarmingly high through Election Day — when they snapped back and voted for him at a nearly 90 percent clip.
Among these Republicans, and among a certain type of traditionally Democratic voter in the Rust Belt, there was something that pulled them into Trump’s camp when it mattered — despite their misgivings.
Maybe it was as simple as Hilary Clinton’s own unpopularity or James Comey’s late-October announcement about newly-discovered emails or Clinton’s close association with the political establishment in an anti-establishment year. Maybe it was some combination of all of this.
If Trump’s surprise win was primarily due to weaknesses that are unique to Clinton, then his current poll numbers are as dire as they seem. Likewise, if his reluctant supporters were drawn by the promise of specific, tangible outcomes, then his low job approval should also be seen as a political crisis, a clear sign they don’t feel he’s meeting their expectations.
The question is whether there might be another explanation for the rallying effect that lifted Trump last November.