Americans feel better off under President Trump. But that has not generated the groundswell of support a president might normally enjoy with a strong economy. In fact, new polling suggests there’s a ceiling on Trump’s popularity that may never reach a majority of voters.
New research by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group finds that Americans are more optimistic than they were in December 2016, right after Trump won the election. The portion saying their family is better off financially than it was a year ago rose from 17% to 24%. Those saying the economy is getting better rose from 24% to 33%. Most of the nearly 7,000 respondents participated in prior surveys, allowing comparisons over time among a similar group of voters.
The improvements in sentiment since Trump got elected might seem small, but they should contribute to an improvement in Trump’s overall approval rating. Yet they don’t. In the Voter Study Group surveys, Trump’s favorability rating rose from 43% in December 2016 to just 44% in the latest survey. And his unfavorability rating remained at 55%. Those numbers suggest voters feel better off, but they’re not giving Trump credit for that.
The economy has, in fact, improved under Trump. Employers have created 5.9 million jobs since Trump’s election, with the unemployment rate falling from 4.7% to 3.6%. Wages are ticking up while inflation remains low, giving consumers more purchasing power.
At the same time, however, Trump has pursued divisive policies on immigration, health care and trade that seem designed to fire up a narrow subset of Trump supporters, at the expense of mainstream support. Only about one-third of voters favor tougher restrictions on immigration, yet Trump has made that a singular focus of his presidency. And the Trump administration is still trying to kill the Affordable Care Act, even though half of Americans now support it and provisions such as the ban on coverage limitations for preexisting conditions are widely popular. Ethics scandals and the running battle over the Mueller investigation into Russian election interference further suppress Trump’s popularity.
Weakness in key electoral states
The breakdown by party is unsurprising. Trump remains extremely popular among Republicans and extremely unpopular among Democrats. The biggest change in the Voter Study Group data comes among people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Approval for Trump among these Obama-Trump voters fell from 85% in 2016 to 66% in 2019. “Even small movement among these voters may prove significant heading into the 2020 presidential election,” the latest Voter Study Group analysis says.
Trump’s weak approval in key electoral states seems to be an opportunity for Democrats to take him down in 2020, despite a strong economy. Trump’s approval in Pennsylvania, for instance, has fallen 17 points since he took office, according to Morning Consult. His approval has fallen 18 points in Ohio and Michigan, 19 points in Wisconsin and 24 points in Florida. Trump won all of those states in 2016, putting him over the top. If Democrats take some of them in 2020, Trump will probably lose.
It would be foolish, of course, to conclude that Trump is toast, 18 months before the election. He defied polls in 2016 and he could do so again, especially once there’s a Democratic candidate for him to attack. But Trump also has a notoriously hard time keeping his mouth shut and letting results speak for themselves. And nobody expects that to change by 2020.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman