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Trump's Approval Rating Should Worry Republicans

Jonathan Bernstein

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It’s still early to project how next year’s congressional elections will go. But the folks at Inside Elections have updated their predictions for 12 House contests in the Democrats’ favor, with only one shifting toward Republicans. It’s a good reminder that unpopular presidents typically drag their parties down.

And, yes, President Donald Trump is unpopular. In fact, through 1,048 days, his average approval rating is back to being the very worst of the polling-era presidents. According to FiveThirtyEight, he’s at 41.6%; the next worst at this point was Barack Obama at 44%. Disapproval ratings tell an even worse story: At 53.5%, Trump is the only president through 1,048 days topping 50% (with Obama again the next-worst at 49.7% and no one else above 42%).

This is dangerous territory for Republicans. Even if Trump rallies between now and November, it may be too late to help his party much. Candidate-recruitment season is already well underway, and those updates at Inside Elections mostly reflect how certain seats are becoming easier for Democrats to defend or harder for Republicans to hold based on decisions by politicians who are anticipating a tough contest for the president’s party.

The good news for Republicans is that impeachment proceedings have hardly budged Trump’s popularity, despite a steady stream of seemingly negative stories about him. The bad news is that there’s also no sign that impeachment is hurting Democrats or helping Trump — and he needs help. In fact, assuming he survives impeachment, the most pressing question continues to be: Is there anything that could happen at this point that would make Donald Trump significantly more popular? 

Trump’s best hope is probably that the election itself will persuade some independents and Republican-leaning voters who currently disapprove of him to change their minds and support him, perhaps because they intensely dislike whoever the Democrats nominate. Unfortunately for Trump, elections when the president is on the ballot tend to be focused on the incumbent, not the challenger.

Beyond that, though, it’s increasingly hard to imagine what could spark a public-opinion rally in Trump’s favor. Perhaps a couple of quarters of much faster economic growth would help, although most economists expect no such boom. There’s also the possibility that Trump could start behaving differently, but that seems even less likely.

This isn’t to say that Trump can’t be re-elected, or even that he’s necessarily an underdog. He could feasibly win with a mid-40s approval rating. But the kind of solid victory that would help Republicans add seats in the Senate and recapture a House majority? That would require a president much more popular than Trump has ever been during his time in office — and that means something would have to happen to really change his presidency.

1. Must-read Julia Azari on Senator Kamala Harris and the nomination process. I could argue with a few points here, but the one comment I’ll make is that even if it’s true (and I’m not sure it is) that there’s “little middle ground for candidates who promise neither safety nor wholesale change,” the party could still end up there anyway. Healthy parties will have real disputes! And while sometimes it’s fine to paper them over by nominating compromise candidates, another option is to fight it out and then let the winners find ways to reach out to the losers (since, after all, they need to reconcile to win in November). 

2. Laurel Bliss and Brian Schaffner at Mischiefs of Faction on Twitter compared to the primary electorate. 

3. John Sides and Lynn Vavreck argue against using ideological “lanes” to analyze the nomination contest.

4. Jack Bailey and Patrick English have a great page looking at U.K. election polling and translating it into parliamentary seat projections.

5. Draper Kauffman Jr. and Kelsey Kauffman on the Navy SEALs, honor and Trump. 

6. Heather Hurlburt and Alexandra Stark on international trade and the 2020 election.

7. Greg Sargent on the House intelligence committee’s impeachment report.

8. And Julia Ioffe on how Trump is harming one source of U.S. strength: the now-collapsing diplomatic corps.

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To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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