Now that the 2020 election has gone from “next year” to “this year,” it’s worth taking a step back and asking a question that we first posed in early 2017: How popular is Donald Trump? After all, a president’s job approval rating can be predictive of his reelection chances, especially as November draws closer.
On Jan. 1, 42.6 percent of Americans approved of President Trump’s job performance, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker (52.9 percent disapproved). That’s a pretty typical number for Trump (although it’s worth noting that, since Jan. 1, the U.S. and Iran have taken actions that could shake Trump’s approval rating loose from that anchor), but ominously for the president, that’s the second-lowest FiveThirtyEight average approval rating of any recent1 president on the first day of their reelection year. Only Gerald Ford (39.3 percent on Jan. 1, 1976) was less popular — and, of course, Ford lost that campaign to Jimmy Carter.
|President||Election Year||On Jan. 1||On Election Day||Change|
|Lyndon B. Johnson*||1964||76.0%||74.0%||-2.0|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||1956||75.5||67.9||-7.6|
|George W. Bush||2004||56.7||48.4||-8.3|
|Harry S. Truman*||1948||54.0||39.6||-14.3|
|George H.W. Bush||1992||48.9||32.6||-16.3|
However, working in Trump’s favor is the fact that past presidents’ approval ratings have tended to shift over the course of the year — and sometimes by Election Day bear very little resemblance to their Jan. 1 approval. Those shifts haven’t tended to be predictable, either: Five of the last 11 presidents running for reelection saw their approval ratings rise during the year, and six saw them decline. So Trump’s low approval ratings as of January aren’t necessarily a problem for him in November. (For example, depending on how it unfolds, a potential conflict with Iran could certainly affect them.)
This is a good news/bad news situation for Trump: The smart money is against his approval rating budging very much, simply because he’s had a remarkably steady approval rating. As my colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote last year, it’s fluctuated about 9 points over the course of his presidency — much less than most previous presidents’ approval ratings have fluctuated. Part of this is because of the very polarized era we live in, in which most voters have already made up their minds about what they think about the occupant of the White House. Take Barack Obama, who had a similarly intractable approval rating over the course of his presidency. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 6, 2012 — the year of his reelection campaign — his numbers ticked up by only 3.8 points. What this means in practical terms is that it’s increasingly difficult for presidents to win over new supporters.
That puts Trump in an unenviable but ambiguous position for reelection. Since Dwight D. Eisenhower, presidents with a FiveThirtyEight average approval rating2 of 48.4 percent or higher on Election Day all won their reelection campaigns, and presidents with a FiveThirtyEight average approval rating of 43.6 percent or lower all lost. If, in 10 months, Trump’s approval rating is still in the same range it has occupied for the past two years (roughly, between 39 percent and 43 percent), he would obviously fit into the latter group. And that would not bode well for his chances of being reelected; he’d have to hope for a Harry S. Truman-caliber upset. (The owner of a 39.6 percent approval rating on Nov. 2, 1948, Truman was widely predicted to lose the election but ended up narrowly defeating Thomas “Your Future Is Still Ahead Of You” Dewey.)
On the other hand, even a modest, Obama-esque improvement would put Trump in the purgatory between the presidents who won and the presidents who lost — between 43.6 percent and 48.4 percent. So in the end, Trump’s current approval rating doesn’t sound a clear signal one way or the other on the question of his reelection — but it does maybe hint that he starts off the new year at a disadvantage.