The completion of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was widely portrayed as a turning point in Trump’s presidency. But so far it’s had little effect on his approval rating.
As of Monday night, Trump’s approval rating was 42.1 percent and his disapproval rating was 52.8 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s approval rating tracker, which is based on data all publicly-available polls. Those numbers are little changed from where they were – 41.9 percent approval and 52.9 percent disapproval – on Saturday, March 23, the day before Attorney General William Barr issued a four-page letter on the Mueller report to Congress. (The Mueller report itself has not yet been released to the public or to Congress, although Barr has pledged to release a redacted version of it by mid-April.)
|March 1||Start of last month||42.0%||53.3%|
|March 21||Day before Mueller report filed to Barr||41.6||53.1|
|March 23||Day before Barr letter released||41.9||52.9|
While I’d urge a little bit of caution on these numbers – sometimes there’s a lag before a news event is fully reflected in the polls – there’s actually been quite a bit of polling since Barr’s letter came out, including polls from high-quality organizations such as Marist College, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Quinnipiac University and the Pew Research Center which were conducted wholly or partially after the Barr letter was published. Some of these polls showed slight improvements in Trump’s approval rating, but others showed slight declines. Unless you’re willing to do a lot of cherry-picking, there just isn’t anything to make the case that much has changed.
In writing about the Barr letter just after it came out, I ducked making any sort of prediction about its effect on Trump’s numbers, saying it might or might not approve his approval ratings. Truth be told, if I were forced to put money on one side or another, I’d probably have expected them to improve by more than a few tenths of a percentage point.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, maybe this shouldn’t have been any sort of surprise. There are at least six reasons for why you might not have expected to see much of a change in Trump’s numbers. Here they are – note that these aren’t mutually exclusive and aren’t listed in any particular order of importance.
Reason No. 1: The Muller report itself hasn’t been released, so voters are reserving judgment.
Let’s start with the obvious. In every poll, overwhelming majorities of the public — typically on the order of 80 percent — think the entire Mueller report should be released for public consumption. Relatedly, most voters don’t think that the four-page letter that Barr published is an adequate substitute: A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that just 28 percent of the public thought Barr had released enough material against 57 percent who thought he hadn’t.
Reason No. 2: Trump’s approval ratings have been bound within an extremely narrow range, so this is par for the course.
As my colleague Geoffrey Skelley pointed out last week, the range of approval ratings for Trump has been exceptionally narrow. Excluding the first week of his presidency when there weren’t many polls to choose from, his approval rating has never been higher than 44.8 percent or lower than 36.4 percent in our average. Major news events such as Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May 2017 and the government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019 have moved his numbers, but only by 2 or 3 percentage points at a time. Other stories that were the subject of extensive news coverage, such as Trump’s reaction to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, 2017, had little discernible effect on his ratings.
A lot of this is because of extremely high partisanship. If the overwhelming majority of Democrats disapprove of Trump’s performance no matter what and the overwhelming majority of Republicans approve of it no matter what, there isn’t much room for his numbers to swing around. But it may also be because Trump generates so much news that voters already have a lot to weigh. One additional story — even one that voters paid quite a bit of attention to1 — isn’t likely to tip the scales that much.
Reason No. 3: Voters don’t necessarily see the Mueller report as exonerating Trump.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 29 percent of Americans — mostly Republicans — thought that “information available so far from the Mueller report” cleared Trump of “wrongdoing.” Meanwhile, 40 percent of Americans said it did not clear Trump, while 31 percent weren’t sure.
That ambivalence seems appropriate given the scant and somewhat confusing details available to the public so far. One of the few direct quotes from the Mueller report in Barr’s letter said that the investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But another directly quoted passage, apparently referring to whether Trump obstructed justice, said that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Other polls have tried to tease out a distinction between whether Trump was cleared of colluding with the Russian government, and whether he was cleared of obstructing justice. They found a slightly larger shift in public opinion on the collusion question — something consistent with the sections of the Mueller report that Barr cited, which gave Trump a cleaner bill of health on collusion than obstruction. At the same time, there are lots of ambiguities that the public has to wrestle with, such as whether Mueller’s finding that he “did not establish” that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia is the same thing as clearing Trump, especially given the variety of previous reporting on alleged ties between Russia and associates of the Trump campaign.
It’s also possible — indeed, inevitable — that some voters are reacting in a partisan way. That is to say, Democrats are reluctant to revisit their priors on collusion (and Republicans on the possibility of obstruction). Nonetheless, taken in the aggregate, the public’s measured response seems fairly appropriate given what is known (not that much) about the Mueller report so far.
Reason No. 4: The public’s expectations for Mueller’s findings were modest, and consistent with what they’ve learned so far.
People don’t like to admit they’ve changed their minds to pollsters, so what were the public’s expectations for the Mueller report before it was filed?
There are several polls that asked voters about their expectations; unfortunately, none of them are all that recent, and they have somewhat inconsistent findings:
- A HarrisX poll in September 2018 found that 39 percent of voters thought Mueller had “uncovered evidence of the Trump campaign colluding with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign,” compared with 36 percent who did not and 25 percent who were not sure.
- A Suffolk University poll in December 2018 had 46 percent of the public saying that “Trump associates” had definitely colluded with Russia in 2016, compared with 29 percent who said definitely not and 19 percent who were not sure.
- A Quinnipiac poll in July 2018 found that 39 percent of voters thought Trump had colluded with Russia as compared to 48 percent who did not. On a separate question about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia, 46 percent said yes and 44 percent said no.
There are some wording differences in these polls — and only the HarrisX poll asked about the Mueller report’s findings specifically. Still, taken as a whole they reveal a fair amount of ambivalence and uncertainty about where Mueller would land. The data doesn’t particularly square with the idea, popular in critiques of how the media covered the Russia story, that there was a single dominant media narrative about Trump and Russia.
Reason No. 5: The Russia investigation isn’t a big priority for voters.
In addition to not seeing the Barr letter as hugely informative, most of the public didn’t care that much about Russia in the first place. A Gallup poll taken in October 2018 in advance of the midterms found that the Russia investigation ranked last in importance among 12 issues that Gallup asked about, with 45 percent of voters saying it was very important or extremely important to their vote for Congress. By comparison, 80 percent of voters said that about health care, the top-ranked issue.
Views on the importance of Russiagate were highly partisan: 66 percent of Democrats2said it was very or extremely important, as compared to just 19 percent of Republicans.3 That helps to explain why Russia got so much coverage on MSNBC and CNN, which have largely Democratic audiences. At the same time, if (a) only partisan Democrats cared very much about Russia and (b) those Democrats have plenty of other reasons to dislike Trump anyway and (c) they aren’t likely to be persuaded by the Barr letter besides that, you can see why the end of the investigation hasn’t moved the needle much in terms of Trump’s overall approval.
Reason No. 6: The public largely doesn’t trust the White House on Russia, and the White House’s attempts at spin may have backfired.
Given that the mainstream media headlines were initially quite favorable for Trump, it could have been a moment for the White House to demonstrate more magnanimity than usual, and to improve trust by appearing eager for the release of the full Mueller report.
Instead, as is often the case, the White House’s strategy in the wake of the Barr letter seemed largely aimed at pleasing their base and dunking on Democrats rather than winning over swing voters. Trump claimed that he’d had a “complete and total EXONERATION” when the quoted sections of the Mueller report explicitly did not exonerate him from obstruction claims. He and Republicans were sometimes cagey about how much of the Mueller report should be released, with Trump at one point seeming to suggest that the White House might as well not bother to release the Mueller report since Democrats wouldn’t believe it anyway. All of this came against a background where, according to a Suffolk University poll conducted last month before the Mueller report was filed, only 30 percent of the public had a lot of trust in Trump’s denial about collusion, as compared to 52 percent who had little or none.
And as we discussed on our podcast this week, the White House also picked some odd, unpopular issues to pivot toward. Another White House-led attempt to repeal Obamacare could be a political gift to Democrats, who won 75-23 in last November’s midterms among the 41 percent of voters who ranked health care as their top issue. The White House even found itself embroiled in a controversy about its proposed budget that would cut federal funding for the Special Olympics, the sort of thing that would sound like an April Fool’s Day joke if it wasn’t real.
Trump can still breathe a huge sigh of relief that the indictments are apparently finished, and that the Mueller report4 didn’t conclude that he’d colluded with Russia. As I wrote last month, that removes a considerable amount of downside risk from Trump’s portfolio. But he also hasn’t realized very much political upside from the investigation’s end so far.
From ABC News: