In recent months, President Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings have been unimpressive, stubbornly stuck around 42 percent and 53 percent, respectively, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker. That could be a bad sign for his reelection prospects. But luckily for Trump, presidential elections in the United States are made up of 50 state-level elections, and his approval rating varies by state.
In the spirit of my “Popularity Above Replacement” series, in which I’ve looked at how popular governors and senators were relative to the partisanship of their states, I wanted to see what Trump’s state-by-state approval ratings tell us beyond mere partisanship. To find out, I looked at the difference between Trump’s net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) in a given state according to Morning Consult’s latest polling and that state’s partisan lean (how much more Republican- or Democratic-leaning it is than the country as a whole).1 The result is Trump’s “Popularity Above Replacement President,” or PARP, score for each state.
Those scores, which were calculated using Morning Consult’s Trump approval and disapproval ratings from April, range from +4 to -27. There are six states where Trump’s net approval rating is higher than it “should” be based on partisan lean, from Rhode Island (+4) in the top spot to Alabama, where his PARP is barely positive (+0.2). The state where Trump is most underperforming partisan lean is North Dakota — it is 33 points more Republican-leaning than the nation, but Trump’s approval rating there in April was only 6 points higher than his disapproval rating.
Trump’s ‘Popularity Above Replacement President’ scores
President Trump’s net approval rating in every state in April relative to the state’s partisan lean*
|State||Trump Net Approval||State Partisan Lean||PARP|
The top of the list — where Trump is doing better than what we’d expect from the state’s partisanship — is generally populated by two types of states. First, there are blue states like Rhode Island (No. 1), Hawaii (No. 4) and Massachusetts (No. 5); it’s interesting that these strongly Democratic states haven’t gotten more anti-Trump. Second, there are Southern states like Mississippi (No. 2), Louisiana (No. 3) and Alabama (No. 6). The fact that Trump’s net approval rating so closely matches partisanship in these states may be because they are very inelastic, meaning they are home to few swing voters. Specifically, in these states, evangelical whites are likely to be staunchly Republican, and black voters are likely to be loyal Democrats. So it wouldn’t be surprising if all the Republicans simply approve of Trump and all the Democrats disapprove, with few independents left to move the needle.
Meanwhile, the bottom of the list — where Trump is underperforming partisanship — is filled mostly with non-Southern red states like North Dakota, Utah and Kansas. (New Hampshire is a notable exception; read on.) This may seem like a big problem for Trump, but it’s probably not. He simply has more room to fall in red states than in purple or blue ones. Indeed, if there’s anywhere that Trump can afford to lose fans, it’s in these states; they are so conservative that there’s no real danger of their going blue in 2020. (This also suggests that Trump’s low approval ratings nationally aren’t as bad a sign for him as they might appear. If Trump is disproportionately unpopular in safely Republican states but his popularity roughly matches partisanship in swing states, his low national ratings shouldn’t have much of an impact on the Electoral College.)
But what I’m most interested in is where potential 2020 swing states2 rank in the table above. Among those, Trump’s PARP is the lowest in New Hampshire. The state is slightly Republican-leaning (R+2), but Trump was way underwater there last month, with a net approval rating of -19 points. That could mean the Granite State, which voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, may be slipping out of Trump’s reach for 2020. In Arizona, which has backed every Republican presidential candidate since 2000, Trump’s net approval rating is also much lower (-7) than you would expect given its R+9 partisan lean. That might explain why many election analysts think it will be in play in 2020. Trump also appears to be in worse position than a typical Republican president would be in Wisconsin, Texas and Iowa, all of which have PARP scores of -14.
On the other hand, the swing states where Trump has the highest PARP scores are New Mexico (-5), Virginia (-6), North Carolina (-7) and Florida (-7). Given the conventional wisdom that New Mexico and Virginia are now blue states, this may be a surprise — and it’s a sign that they may still be competitive (though they certainly tilt away from Trump to start). In North Carolina and Florida, meanwhile, the share of voters who approve of Trump is almost the same as the share who disapprove of him, so these states will probably be in play in 2020. But it also could be an auspicious sign for Trump that he isn’t more unpopular in these states, given his unpopularity nationwide.