What's Behind Trump's Rising Popularity?

Three theories as to why the poll numbers are improving for the president and his party.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

It would be easy to read the headlines this week and conclude that the Trump administration is in even more trouble than normal. The White House still can’t get its story straight on Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s departure amid domestic-violence accusations. Chief of Staff John Kelly seems to be losing support from his subordinates and his boss. And the boss himself is stubbornly refusing to offer even a wisp of sympathy to victims of abuse.

This interpretation wouldn’t be wrong—these scandals are real and they are disturbing on a number of fronts—but it threatens to eclipse the ways in which the political picture has improved in recent weeks for both President Trump and his sometimes uneasy Republican allies.

First, the president’s personal standing has rebounded. Trump remains historically unpopular for a first-term president, but against that low baseline, he’s seen improvement. FiveThirtyEight’s aggregator of approval ratings puts him at 41 percent, well below where any of his predecessors in the modern era were at this moment in their terms, but his highest point since mid-May, around the time he fired FBI Director James Comey, disclosed classified information to Russians, and saw a special counsel appointed to investigate him.

Second, the formidable Democratic advantage on the generic ballot for Congress has narrowed. The generic ballot is a useful-though-limited measure—asking respondents around the country whether they intend to vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress. Because the ballot does not take into account specific races, nor GOP advantages imparted by districting and geography, it is more effective at capturing a general mood than allowing for a precise prediction. In December, a CNN poll showing a Democratic lead on the ballot of 18 points set off alarm bells for Republicans. (Most polls showed closer to a 10-point lead.) More recently, however, the gap has been tightening. Several polls show a smaller Democratic advantage; a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday actually shows Republicans with a 39-38 edge, with 23 percent of voters undecided. RealClearPolitics’ average shows a 6.6-point Democratic lead.

What is behind the Trump-GOP bounceback? There’s rarely a single factor behind such shifts, but there are a few possible culprits. Let’s call them the economy, exhaustion, and equilibrium.

The relationship between Trump’s approval and economic indicators has fascinated political scientists, who note that based on the strength of the economy, one would predict more favorable views of Trump. The gap between prediction and reality is one way of illustrating just how unusual and unpopular this president is, but it also makes sense that this gap would close somewhat. The economy continues to perform well, as it has for several years now. The recent correction in the stock market is an embarrassment for Trump, given his boasts about its rise, but just as Trump’s critics noted that most Americans don’t invest in the stock market or profit from its rise, it is also true that most Americans aren’t harmed or bothered by its dip.

The rise in Republican numbers has also coincided with the tax bill passed in December. That bill remains unpopular, especially given that it gives most people a tax cut, at least in the short term. Voters largely saw the bill as a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations, two groups that do benefit handsomely, but over time the bill has gotten more popular. It’s both a pocketbook issue and the first proof that the GOP could pass major legislation while controlling the House, Senate, and White House—even if it took nearly a year of failures.

Alex Roarty reports on internal polling from the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which also finds Trump’s approval rebounding and the generic ballot narrowing. Internal polling should be consumed carefully: It usually emerges because something in the results supports the political stance its originator wants to bolster, but it can also help understand political actors’ assumptions. In this case, Priorities argues based on its results that the tightening has come because Democrats are focused on immigration and Trump is able to get his message out.

“There’s no question that Trump benefits when a critique of his tax and health care policies is not front and center—especially when voters are hearing Trump’s side of the story on the economy,” a Priorities memo said.

The group argues that the party needs to focus on economic issues and ignore whatever the latest Trump provocation might be.

And there are so many provocations that exhaustion may be a big part of the recent polling. The Trump presidency, following in the blueprint of the Trump campaign, has been a string of jaw-dropping scandals. The special-counsel probe, the scanty legislative ledger, and the low approval ratings are all products of the rolling disaster, but another product is fatigue: When there are so many scandals, they all start to blend together and fade. One retort to the anti-Trump slogan “This is not normal” is to point out that by now cataclysmic scandals are in fact the new normal. Trump’s improvement may reflect exhaustion with scandals and diminished anger at the president as a result.

Finally, Trump and Republicans may be tending toward an equilibrium. One open question about his approval rating has been how low he could go. The president may have finally hit a floor, at least a temporary one. Meanwhile, the strength of negative partisanship in contemporary American politics means that even as Republican and GOP-leaning voters may be disgusted with Trump, they will still slump back toward the party as the election nears.

Every time a legislative goal goes down in flames, Trump tweets angrily that voters need to send more Republicans to Congress. (Never mind the party’s dominance in both chambers.) Barring a fundamental shift in the electoral stakes, that remains unlikely. The president’s party almost always loses seats in a midterm election, part of a natural pendulum effect, and given Trump’s unpopularity, that is likely to be even deeper. It is a sign of Democratic strength that the party keeps winning special elections, even in conservative districts, and that an unusually large number Republican lawmakers are deciding to retire, a reliable barometer of what members expect to see happen in November.

The question is how big that Democratic edge will be, and that’s where the improved Republican polling plays in. Democrats would need a strong slate of wins to take back the House and a near-miracle to take back the Senate. But Democrats still don’t have a unified message. Even as Priorities pushes a bread-and-butter-focused thrust, others contend that it would be silly to pass up the political gift of Trump’s deep unpopularity. Will Stancil argued in The Atlantic last week that Democrats have abandoned the strategy of total resistance to anything Trump does, and that has paralleled a slip in their numbers. There are compelling arguments for each tack, but for now the party seems unsure which to buy.

Democrats do have some time to figure it out—after all, it’s only February. The White House’s fumble on Porter, and the president’s own strange standoffishness, have not yet filtered into public opinion. The Mueller investigation continues. Trump’s own capacity for self-inflicting damage cannot be ignored. Yet the tighter numbers over the last week show that Democrats are unlikely to have the cakewalk that some hoped a Trump-era midterm election would represent.