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Six Months In, Trump Is Historically Unpopular

On Thursday, President Trump will officially have been in office for six months, and his term so far has included a few victories (the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court), plenty of frustrations (court battles over his travel ban, delays in efforts to overhaul health care) and lots of controversy (accusations that members of his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election). Put all those wins and losses together, and it adds up to this: Barring a sudden turnaround this week, Trump will conclude his first six months in office as the most unpopular president, at that point in his first term, since modern polling began.

Trump’s approval rating as of last Thursday, 175 days into his presidency, was 39 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight Trump approval tracker. Combined with a disapproval rating of 55 percent, Trump’s net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) was -16 percentage points.

Trump is the most unpopular president at the 6-month mark

Approval, disapproval and net approval ratings of presidents since 1945 after 175 days in office, according to the FiveThirtyEight aggregate

PRESIDENT YEAR APPROVE DISAPPROVE NET APPROVAL
1 Harry Truman 1945 87 3 +84
2 Lyndon Johnson 1964 75 10 +65
3 John Kennedy 1961 72 14 +58
4 Dwight Eisenhower 1953 69 15 +54
5 George H.W. Bush 1989 67 18 +49
6 Richard Nixon 1969 63 16 +47
7 Jimmy Carter 1977 62 22 +40
8 Ronald Reagan 1981 58 30 +28
9 George W. Bush 2001 52 33 +19
Barack Obama 2009 56 37 +19
11 Bill Clinton 1993 46 46 +0
12 Gerald Ford 1975 35 41 -6
13 Donald Trump 2017 39 55 -16
Average without Trump 62 24 +38

Trump’s early-term unpopularity is unusual. In the decades since World War II, the average first-term president before Trump had an approval rating of 62 percent on his 175th day in office, 23 percentage points higher than Trump’s. Only two other presidents have had an approval rating south of 50 percent at this point in their terms, and only Gerald Ford, at 35 percent, had an approval rating lower than Trump’s; Ford’s rating tumbled following his decision to pardon Richard Nixon. Trump’s disapproval rating, however, is much higher than Ford’s,1 and Trump is the only president of whom a majority of Americans have said they disapprove of the job he is doing this soon after his inauguration. His net approval rating is 54 points below average and remains by far the lowest in the period for which we have data.

Trump, who was historically unpopular as a presidential candidate, has become more so as his term has gone on: His net approval rating was slightly positive (+4) when he first took office, and he averaged a net approval rating of -2 over the first month of his term. That means his net approval rating has fallen 14 points since his first month in office, or a bit less than three points per month.2

Taken on its own, that decline isn’t surprising: Most presidents have a so-called honeymoon period in which their approval ratings are initially inflated but then start to drop once they start making official decisions. The net approval rating of presidents since 19533 has dropped by an average of 17 percentage points in the presidents’ first 175 days in office. That’s at least partially skewed by Ford’s astounding 74-point drop after pardoning Nixon. The median president’s net approval rating dropped 10 percentage points. Any way you look at it, Trump’s decline in public perception has been about in line with that of other presidents.

Trump’s honeymoon decline has been about average

Since 1953, a president’s average net approval rating during his first month vs. 175 days in, according to the FiveThirtyEight aggregate

NET APPROVAL RATING
PRESIDENT FIRST-MONTH AVERAGE 175 DAYS IN DIFFERENCE
1 George H.W. Bush +49 +49 +0
2 Richard Nixon +54 +47 -7
Dwight Eisenhower +61 +54 -7
4 John Kennedy +66 +58 -8
5 Ronald Reagan +38 +28 -10
Lyndon Johnson +75 +65 -10
7 George W. Bush +32 +19 -13
8 Donald Trump -2 -16 -14
9 Jimmy Carter +58 +40 -18
10 Barack Obama +40 +19 -21
11 Bill Clinton +29 +0 -29
12 Gerald Ford +68 -6 -74
Average without Trump -18
Median without Trump -10

First-month average is average of daily FiveThirtyEight aggregates taken during the first month of a presidency. The exception is George H.W. Bush, which is an average of all polls conducted during the first month of his presidency.

Sources: FiveThirtyEight, Roper Archive

Perhaps it’s surprising that Trump’s net approval rating hasn’t fallen even further. After all, no president has had a first six months quite like Trump’s: He has suffered a series of setbacks (many of his own making) that have led to a steady flow of negative news coverage. Yet Trump has mostly held onto his base, even if fewer of those voters strongly approve of him than did at the beginning of his presidency.

On the other hand, maybe it’s surprising that Trump has seen a fairly large drop in his net approval rating given how unpopular he was to start off with — his approval numbers didn’t have as far to fall. Although presidents’ net approval ratings tend to decline over time, my colleague Nate Silver has noted that those ratings also tend to revert to 0. That is, popular presidents are more likely to see a drop in their ratings than unpopular presidents. Most presidents start off with a very high net approval rating, so it’s natural that they would see a large decline in their popularity six months into their term. But because Trump started off about even, we would have expected to see a smaller-than-average drop.

Indeed, a simple linear regression model based on previous presidents’ changes in popularity shows Trump has actually seen a greater drop in his net approval rating than we’d expect given how low he started. Knowing nothing except how popular Trump was when he took office, the model estimates that Trump’s net approval rating should have dropped only about 8 points, not the 14 points it actually dropped. To be sure, the historical data is noisy and the model’s predictions are rough, so we cannot say for sure that the early controversies have necessarily hurt Trump. Still, the fact that Trump has seen such a big drop suggests that, at a minimum, he is subject to the same laws of political gravity as past presidents.

Trump’s popularity has more or less held steady since mid-May, with his net approval rating generally staying within a point or so of -16 in either direction. But it’s hard to know what happens next. So far in his term, Trump’s approval ratings have followed a rough stair-step pattern, with steep drops followed by a few weeks of relative stability. Most recent polls predate the latest round of revelations about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, so it’s possible that his approval rating will drop again once those revelations are fully accounted for. On the other hand, it’s possible that his approval rating has fallen about as far as it can fall, or that it could rise again if the constant flow of negative information about his administration slows.

For now, all we can say is that Trump remains historically unpopular.

Footnotes

  1. Ford’s disapproval rating was 41 percent at the 175-day mark, 14 points better than Trump’s.

  2. The decline in Trump’s approval looks even more dramatic if you compare the current numbers to those from the first few polls taken during his term, rather than using the average of his first full month. I don’t do that here because in the past, pollsters didn’t try to gauge the public’s opinion of many presidents until they had been in office for at least a few weeks, whereas with Trump, pollsters first asked about the new administration within a few days of Trump’s inauguration. Since a president’s net approval rating tends to drop rather quickly in the early days of his term, if we used Trump’s first net approval rating, it would probably inflate the rate of his six-month decline compared to other presidents, making for an unfair comparison.

  3. We had to exclude Harry Truman from our post-World War II group because no poll asked about his approval rating during his first month. All estimates are from the aggregation used in FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker, except for George H.W. Bush. The tracker doesn’t have an estimate for his first month in office, so I took an average of polls conducted over the first month of his administration.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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