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America Had Warmed To Trump’s North Korea Strategy Before The Vietnam Summit

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended on Thursday without a deal that would lead to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Trump has repeatedly touted his ability to work with North Korea, so this outcome is far from ideal for him. It’s still too soon to know exactly how Americans are reacting to the summit in Vietnam, but polls conducted over roughly the past two years show that Americans’ views on Trump’s management of U.S. relations with North Korea improved after his rhetoric changed from antagonistic to cooperative and the North stopped conducting nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests.

According to a Fox News poll conducted this month, before the summit, 46 percent of Americans said they approved “of the way Trump is handling North Korea” while 41 percent said they disapproved. That gives the president a net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) on this issue of +5. That’s notable, because it’s the first time that Trump has been in positive territory on this specific question in a Fox News poll since the pollster first asked it, in April 2017. And it’s a big improvement from October 2017, when Trump’s net approval rating on the issue was -24 and Kim was still openly conducting weapons tests and exchanging hostilities with Trump.

In the chart above, you can see the trends in Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings on North Korea based on the results of surveys from different pollsters since Quinnipiac University asked the question in April 2017.1 The worst time for Trump, from a public opinion perspective, was in the fall of 2017 — after Trump and Kim engaged in a volley of insults and incendiary statements, including a threat by Trump to “totally destroy” North Korea during a speech at the United Nations. Trump’s rhetoric began to soften in January of 2018, ahead of his first meeting with Kim, in Singapore, in June of that year — and as you can see in the chart, Trump’s numbers improved during that time period. Since the summit, public opinion on Trump’s handling of North Korea doesn’t seem to have changed much — but we found only two polls on this question since the beginning of 2019, and we don’t know yet whether the failure to reach a deal in Vietnam will sour Americans on Trump’s policies.

While Trump’s change in tone from threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on the North to declarations of “love” for Kim may have helped boost Trump’s approach in the eyes of the public, the lack of missile and nuclear testing on the peninsula likely also played a role. In 2017, North Korea claimed that it tested a hydrogen bomb and conducted several tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, one of which was lobbed 10 times higher than the international space station and could theoretically have reached the eastern coast of the United States. But since the end of 2017, there have been no reports of North Korea launching ballistic missiles or conducting nuclear weapon tests.

With less negative attention on North Korea from the White House and less missile activity out of Pyongyang, the news media shifted its focus to other matters. That might have had an impact on how the public viewed North Korea: In February of last year (only three months after the most recent ICBM test), 51 percent of Americans told Gallup that they considered North Korea to be the U.S.’s “greatest enemy today,” but in a poll taken this month, that number was only 14 percent, with Americans citing both Russia and China as bigger threats.

This doesn’t mean that Americans are neutral on North Korea. In the February Fox News poll, about half of Americans, including 58 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans, said they consider North Korea a “major threat” to U.S. national security; an additional 37 percent said they consider it a “minor threat.”2 Both U.S. officials and a U.N. watchdog agency have warned that North Korea, despite making multiple public commitments to denuclearization and halting missile testing, has continued to develop its nuclear weapons program.

Americans may look more favorably on Trump’s handling of North Korea in the short run, but with the collapse of the Vietnam summit, Trump could find himself back in a place of nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea. And that probably wouldn’t be good for him politically.

Other polling nuggets

  • In Texas, a Quinnipiac poll of hypothetical head-to-head 2020 presidential general election matchups found prospective Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke each just 1 percentage point behind Trump. Polls this early in an election cycle are not predictive of an election, but this poll is yet another sign that Democrats might be able to compete in Texas in 2020.
  • In a poll of 2020 Democratic primary candidates conducted by Morning Consult, Bernie Sanders, who officially jumped into the Democratic primary field on Feb. 19, saw a 6-point bump in his share of support between Feb. 17 and Feb. 24.
  • A Marist poll conducted this month found a 9-point jump in the share of Americans who say they consider themselves “pro-life,” compared with a similar poll by Marist last month. The poll was commissioned by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization that has conducted polls on abortion since at least 2016. Other polls have not seen the same change.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, there have been rising reports of depression among teenagers. In a survey of 13- to 17 year-olds, Pew found that 70 percent said anxiety and depression were major problems among people of their age in their community. Twenty-six percent said it was a minor problem, and 4 percent said it was not a problem.
  • A poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review found that 60 percent of Americans believe that reporters either “sometimes” or “very often” get paid by their sources. (They don’t.)
  • The 2020 Democratic primary field is big and getting bigger, and according to a HuffPost report, pollsters aren’t quite sure who to include and exclude in their surveys. Pollsters are facing issues such as the amount of time it would take to read 30 names over the phone and the fact that there are only 10 numbers on a telephone dialpad!
  • Actor Jussie Smollett, known for his role on the Fox show “Empire,” was accused by Chicago police of staging a racist and homophobic attack against himself, but Smollett maintains his innocence. A YouGov poll found that 64 percent of Americans think that he staged the incident, 7 percent said they think he was the victim of an attack and 29 percent say they’re not sure.
  • The Pew Research Center reported that the response rate for its telephone polls dropped to 6 percent in 2018 after holding steady at 9 percent for several years, through 2016. The pollster blamed the most recent drop on the rise of robocalls and spammers, which may make people less willing to pick up. In 1997, the response rate for telephone polling stood at a whopping 36 percent.
  • Estonians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Riigikogu, the country’s unicameral legislative body. European polling aggregator Poll of Polls puts the Reform Party in the lead at 27 percent. The Center Party, its primary opponent, trails closely behind at 24 percent, followed by EKRE, a far-right nationalist party that has been growing in power. The Reform Party’s chair has said she refuses to work with the EKRE, so the Center Party may be the most likely candidate to join a governing coalition.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.3 percent approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.0 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 53.2 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.7 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 39.8 percent and a disapproval rating of 55.9 percent, for a net approval rating of -16.1 points.

From ABC News:

Trump and Kim Jong Un fail to reach agreement during summit


  1. That’s the first poll we could find that asked respondents whether they approved of how Trump was handling policy on North Korea. In this analysis, we included all the polls we could find, although we might have missed some.

  2. Six percent said “not a threat at all.”

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.