Trump Defies the Law of Presidential Approval Ratings

Commanders in chief are typically buoyed by a healthy economic climate. Not so with this president.

Donald Trump in the Oval Office
Evan Vucci / AP

Donald Trump’s presidency has broken just about every conventional rule of American politics, but this one’s a doozy: Almost every other first-term president who’s had an economy this strong has also had an approval rating above 50 percent. Trump’s? It’s at about 38 percent, according to an average of three polls released this week by CNN, Quinnipiac University, and NPR/Marist.

Despite a healthy August jobs report, an economy that’s the strongest it’s been in more than a decade, unemployment hovering at 3.9 percent (near May’s 18-year low), and the highest level of consumer confidence since 2000, in recent weeks Trump’s approval numbers have just kept going down. They’re significantly lower than former President Barack Obama’s approval rating at the height of the Great Recession in the fall of 2009, which hovered around 50 percent even as nearly 10 percent of Americans were unemployed.

The culprit isn’t widespread ignorance about the surging economy. A recent poll from Quinnipiac found that 70 percent of registered voters would describe the state of the nation’s economy right now as “excellent” or “good.” A full 65 percent of Americans expect economic conditions to be good a year from now, the highest number in years, according to a CNN poll released Monday. And many Americans are giving Trump, not Obama, credit for the state of the economy, says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion analyst and a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It’s definitely his economy now,” she told me. So what’s going on?

The most obvious explanation is the scandals that have rocked the Trump administration from day one. “There’s been an unbelievable torrent of bad news from Donald Trump, and that takes a toll,” said Alexander Coppock, a political-science professor at Yale who researches public opinion and polling. “There’s a constant stream of bad things coming from the White House.”

In recent weeks, what already seemed like an oversaturated presidential-scandal market got even more full. Between convictions for the Trump associates Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, and the dirty laundry aired in Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, and an anonymous New York Times op-ed—both of which allege widespread discontent with the president within his own White House—it’s been a rough few weeks for the administration. And it’s taking a toll. Coppock says commentators who call Trump a “Teflon president” who’s immune to criticism or scandal are missing a key point: His approval ratings are “historically low, and have been for the entirety of his presidency.”

According to the Quinnipiac poll, registered voters don’t trust the president: Sixty percent said he’s not honest, up two percentage points from July. They think his own administration is undermining him: Fifty-five percent said they believe the Times column alleging that senior administration officials are “working behind [Trump’s] back.” And they’re not confident he’s fit to serve as president: Fifty-five percent of registered voters told Quinnipiac just that, including 42 percent of white voters without a college degree.

If the never-ending scandals are harming Trump this badly, there’s a case to be made that the economy is the only thing keeping his numbers as high as they are. Looking at the data from this new batch of polls, this might be the case. According to the CNN survey, Trump’s disapproval rating among Americans when it comes to the economy is 44 percent, 14 points better than his overall disapproval rating. Meanwhile, almost half of Americans in that survey—and, crucially, half of those polled who self-identify as independent—approve of how he’s handled the economy.

How much credit Trump deserves for the strong economy is up for debate. As his predecessor, Obama, noted in a speech last week, job numbers have been increasing for several years. Writing in the National Review, Michael R. Strain said the Trump economy is “mostly … a continuation of previous trends,” though he credited Trump with increasing small-business optimism and bumping up the GDP. But even some left-leaning commentators, notably Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, have argued that the economy’s strength is at least partially due to the help corporations got from the tax cuts Trump signed into law late last year. “There’s no rational basis for denying that Trump providing a little extra fiscal boost is helping get us to full employment,” Yglesias wrote on Tuesday.

But this relative confidence in Trump’s economic maneuvers doesn’t seem to extend to his actions in the international economic sphere. Fifty-three percent of respondents to the CNN poll said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of foreign trade, 3 percent more than in the same poll last month. The trade war between China and the United States could help explain these numbers; it’s destabilizing many American industries, and as the United States prepares to impose $200 billion worth of additional tariffs on Chinese products, there’s no end in sight to the barrage of back-and-forth tariffs.

Two months out from Election Day, it’s unclear what effect Trump’s unpopular presidency will have on the midterms—and whether the strength of the economy will help counteract it. An NPR/Marist poll released Wednesday found support for Republicans plummeting in key parts of the country: Midwestern voters have swung 13 points in favor of the Democrats since July, small-town voters by 11 points, and rural voters by six points. If the trade war in particular starts to go south, Bowman said, it could have major consequences. “Some people say that, as they go out and talk to a lot of these people who are being affected by the tariffs, that they want to give Trump a little more time,” she said. “If it begins to really hurt, of course it could hurt him in the fall in a lot of very important places.”