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How Has The Ukraine Scandal Affected Trump’s Approval Rating?

Shortly after news broke that President Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival, support for his impeachment increased sharply, according to our impeachment polling tracker. But the ramifications of the Ukraine scandal (and the resulting impeachment inquiry) for Trump’s reelection prospects are murkier.

If the effect of the Ukraine scandal is that people who already disliked Trump simply dislike him more, Trump’s reelection chances may not be hurt that much. As you can see in recent polls, much of the increased support for impeachment so far has come from Democrats, few of whom were probably planning to vote for Trump anyway.

So one other data point to keep an eye on is Trump’s approval rating — if the scandal is turning any supporters into opponents (or at least skeptics), it will show up there. It’s still early, so public opinion is still subject to a lot of change, but now that the scandal has had almost two weeks to unfold, we may be starting to see just that:

Then again, that movement could simply be noise or reversion to the mean.

As of Sept. 24 — the day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally announced an impeachment inquiry — Trump’s approval rating sat at an unusually high 43.1 percent. But today, his approval rating sits at 41.3 percent.1 That’s a nearly 2-point drop in a little over a week, suggesting that the Ukraine scandal may be giving Trump supporters second thoughts about the president. Two points isn’t a ton of movement, but as my colleague Geoffrey Skelley has written, Trump’s approval rating is incredibly stable, so even a shift of 1 or 2 points can be notable.

On the other hand, this also just brings Trump’s approval rating back to about where it was earlier in September. In fact, Trump’s 43.1 percent approval rating on Sept. 24 was his highest mark all year,2 and it’s possible that the uptick that got Trump there was just noise. If you look only at high-quality polls3 of Trump’s approval rating before and after news of the Ukraine scandal broke,4 there’s actually been little change in Trump’s popularity (if anything, it has ticked slightly up).

Trump’s approval rating hasn’t changed in high-quality polls

Change in Trump’s approval rating from before news snowballed of a whistleblower complaint involving President Trump, according to pollsters with FiveThirtyEight pollster ratings of at least an A-

Trump Approval Rating
Pollster Before Sept. 20 After Sept. 20 Change
Quinnipiac University* 38% 41% +3
Monmouth University 40 41 +1
Marist College 41 44 +3

* Quinnipiac also conducted a poll while the Ukraine scandal was still unfolding, from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23. Trump’s approval rating was 40 percent in that poll.

Source: Polls

Another possibility is that the Ukraine scandal reversed a mini polling comeback that Trump was enjoying in mid-September, and these high-quality polls missed it simply due to timing. The bottom line is, a lot of things could be happening here, and we should wait for more data.

In summary, here in the early days of the Ukraine/impeachment drama, Trump’s popularity has stayed within the narrow range it has inhabited since February (41.0-43.1 percent for his approval rating, 52.3-54.3 percent for his disapproval rating). In other words, the Ukraine scandal still hasn’t eaten into Trump’s true base of support.

But that doesn’t mean that his low approval rating won’t be a problem for him in 2020. There is a nontrivial difference between a 43 percent approval rating and a 41 percent approval rating, and at 41 percent or lower (if it continues to trend downward), it’ll be that much harder for him to win 46 percent of the popular vote like he did in 2016 (let alone improve on that performance). It’s too early to draw any conclusions for sure, but how Trump’s approval ratings change in the coming weeks will be among the most important consequences of this story.



Footnotes

  1. As of 9:30 a.m. Eastern on Oct. 4.

  2. The latest time his approval rating hit 43.1 percent was Oct. 23, 2018, and you have to go back to March 2017 (!) for the last time it went higher.

  3. Which I’m defining here as polls from pollsters with a grade of at least an A-, according to FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings.

  4. Using the Sept. 20 publication date of this revelatory Wall Street Journal article as the dividing line.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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