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.
|5||George H.W. Bush||1989||67||18||+49|
|9||George W. Bush||2001||52||33||+19|
|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.
|NET APPROVAL RATING|
|PRESIDENT||FIRST-MONTH AVERAGE||175 DAYS IN||DIFFERENCE|
|1||George H.W. Bush||+49||+49||+0|
|7||George W. Bush||+32||+19||-13|
|Average without Trump||-18|
|Median without Trump||-10|
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.