Trump’s low approval ratings set an unwanted record

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump started as the most unpopular new
president in the history of modern polling. After seven months,
things have only gotten worse.

Plunging into undesirably uncharted territory, Trump is setting
records with his dismally low approval ratings, including the
lowest mark ever for a president in his first year. In fact, with
four months left in the year, Trump has already spent more time
under 40 percent than any other first-year president.

At 34 percent, his current approval rating is worse than
President Barack Obama’s ever was.

Trump’s early descent in the polls defies some longstanding
patterns about how Americans view their president. Such plunges
are often tied to external forces that the president only
partially controls, such as a sluggish economy or an
all-consuming international crisis. In Trump’s case, the economy
is humming and the foreign crises have been kept to a minimum.

Americans also tend to be optimistic about their new leaders,
typically cutting them some slack during their early days in
office. Not with Trump.

“Most presidents begin with a honeymoon period and then go down
from that, and Trump had no honeymoon,” said Gallup
editor-in-chief Frank Newport.

It’s a jarring juxtaposition for the reality TV
star-turned-president who spent months on the campaign trail
obsessing about his poll numbers and reading them to massive
rally crowds while vowing that he’d win so much as president that
Americans would get sick of it. Since he took office, the poll
number recitations have stopped.

Trump is now viewed positively by only 37 percent of Americans,
according to Gallup’s most recent weekly estimate. (Obama’s
lowest weekly average never fell below 40 percent.) It’s even
lower — just 34 percent — in Gallup’s shorter, three-day average,
which includes more recent interviews but can also involve more
random variation.

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To be sure, approval ratings can fluctuate — sometimes
dramatically. Some presidents have seen their positive reviews
dip below 40 percent, only to recover strongly. Bill Clinton,
whose rating fell to 37 percent in early June 1993 after policy
stumbles, quickly gained ground. Later that same month, he
climbed to 46 percent, and ended his eight years enjoying
approval from 66 percent of the nation.

Trump has defied the trends before. But if history is a guide,
his numbers don’t bode well. Low approval ratings hamper a
president’s ability to push an agenda through Congress and make
it more likely the president’s party will lose seats in Congress
in the midterm elections.

Scott de Marchi, who teaches political science at Duke
University, says his research suggests approval ratings tend to
affect whether a president can persuade Congress to do his or her
bidding. That’s primarily true with complex issues like tax
reform, where Americans care about the outcome but may not have
strongly formed opinions. In those cases, Americans are more
likely to support whatever plan the president proposes if they
broadly approve of the president himself.

“The problem with Trump is that on any area like the budget or
tax policy or even health care, people need to be led to a
position to support,” de Marchi said.

Since Gallup began tracking presidential approval, four
presidents — Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George
H.W. Bush — spent significant time below 40 percent during their
first four years. Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s forays below the
40 percent mark also came during their first terms. But neither
stayed there long.

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Of those who spent at least a few months below 40 percent
approval in a first term, only one — Truman — recovered enough to
win re-election.

Still, several others reached lows at some point in their
presidency that are worse than Trump’s, including several who
dropped below 30 percent.

Truman hit 22 percent in February 1952, during a drawn-out Korean
War stalemate and accusations of corruption in his
administration. Richard Nixon hit 24 percent at the height of the
Watergate scandal just before his resignation in 1974. Carter
bottomed out at 28 percent in the summer of 1979, amid that
year’s oil crisis.

Trump’s average approval rating so far: Just 40 percent. That’s
even lower than the previous average low for a first-term
president, 46 percent, set by Carter.

Newport, the Gallup chief, said Trump’s struggles are unusual in
that such abysmal numbers can usually be tied to a single,
specific issue bedeviling the country. With Trump, Newport said,
“it’s a more general kind of issue with the man himself and a
more general dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the
country.”

In July, Gallup posed another question to Trump’s disapprovers:
Why? Nearly two-thirds cited his personality or character, while
less than a third cited issues, policies or job performance.

By contrast, when Gallup asked the same question about Obama in
2009 and George W. Bush in 2001, less than 2 in 10 disapprovers
cited similar concerns about personal characteristics.

The vast majority of Republicans support Trump while the vast
majority of Democrats oppose him. Such political polarization
might be both a blessing and a curse for Trump, preventing him
from achieving higher ratings but also keeping him from falling
even further.

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“When Trump has done things that have generated an enormous
amount of attention and people have anticipated his rating could
go down, it has not,” Newport said. “And that’s because he’s
being propped up by Republicans.”

It’s unclear whether Trump’s most recent bout with controversy —
his response to racially tinged clashes in Charlottesville,
Virginia — further harmed his approval ratings. It could be he’s
close enough to bottoming out that the latest dust-up will have
little effect.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Aug. 16-20, just 28
percent said they approve of Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
But 37 percent said they approved of the job Trump is doing
overall — almost the exact same percentage that approved in the
same poll a month earlier.

Yet if the famously image-conscious Trump aspires to undo some of
the damage, there’s reason to hope.

“The history of presidential job approval ratings shows an
enormous amount of fluctuation,” Newport said. “There’s no
historical reason why his ratings couldn’t go up.”

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