Polls have consistently shown that President Trump is pretty unpopular, with only about 42 percent of the American public approving of the job he is doing as president. These numbers are much lower than what one might expect given the bustling economy.
But does the standard presidential approval question actually capture what voters think of Trump’s job performance? There are several reasons it might not tell the full story. For one, in this hyper-partisan era, presidential approval numbers have become increasingly polarized and don’t move around all that much, so they may now say more about which “side” people are on (pro-Trump or anti-Trump, Republican or Democrat) than voters’ actual evaluation of how the president is doing.
So we (Enns and Schuldt) have worked to develop a hopefully more nuanced approach to measuring presidential approval, where we ask respondents how favorably they feel toward Trump relative to other notable Republicans. By not explicitly asking respondents whether they approve or disapprove of the president, we avoid forcing respondents to take sides, as they do in the standard presidential approval question. Instead, respondents from both parties evaluate Trump in comparison to other Republicans, like former President George W. Bush, the late Sen. John McCain, McCain’s former running mate Sarah Palin, Vice President Mike Pence, and former President Ronald Reagan. (We selected these specific Republicans because they range from the highly regarded Reagan, who is often viewed as the voice of modern conservatism, to Palin, the former Alaska governor whose time in national politics was much shorter and less influential.) We’re most interested in how the public views Trump when they aren’t asked about the president in isolation. Do respondents rate him as highly as other Republicans? Less highly? And does this help clarify whether partisan cheerleading is masking respondents’ actual assessments of Trump in the traditional presidential approval question?
This is now our second survey where we’ve measured Trump’s favorability among likely voters, and in both surveys, we found that the standard presidential approval question may be overestimating Trump’s popularity. Our first survey was conducted before the 2018 midterm elections (July 3 to July 12) and our second survey was conducted soon after the Dec. 18 House vote that formally impeached the president (Dec. 20 to Dec. 22), but in both instances, likely voters rated Trump toward the bottom of our list of Republicans.
Before the midterms, Trump’s favorability rating was statistically indistinguishable from Pence’s, and only Palin was rated less favorably. Following impeachment, Trump was even lower relative to the other Republicans we asked about. Not only is he the least popular president to run for reelection since Gerald Ford according to polls asking the standard presidential approval question, but in our measure, he is now also rated less favorably than his vice president. He’s also essentially tied with Palin for the least favorable Republican on our list, which is notable because when respondents are asked the traditional favorability question, Palin’s numbers are even lower than Trump’s — in 2016, an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that just 30 percent of the public had a favorable impression of the former governor.
In terms of how Trump’s support breaks down along party lines, we also broke out our favorability rankings by Democrats, Republicans and independents.1 There we saw some pretty stark divisions, like the ones you see in the standard presidential approval question. For instance, Democrats, not surprisingly, ranked Trump last and ranked McCain the highest. Likewise, Republicans ranked Trump highly, behind only Reagan in our December poll. But among independents, Trump’s position was perhaps more telling. This group, which is typically viewed as potential swing voters, ranked Trump at the bottom of the list — statistically tied with both Palin and Pence.
As with all survey data, there is uncertainty around these estimates. For example, although it appears that independents rate Trump slightly lower than Palin and Pence, their uncertainty bands overlap enough that we can’t say for sure that Trump rates the lowest of those three. But the bottom line is that the president appears even more unpopular than previously thought, and more disliked than the standard presidential approval question is able to reveal. Although the electoral implications of Trump’s unpopularity and impeachment remain to be seen, the data we do have isn’t promising for Trump.
Methodology: Both surveys were fielded for us by NORC at the University of Chicago with funding from Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality. The July 2018 sample included 1,379 likely voters and the December 2019 sample included 818 likely voters.
Additional contributions by Laura Bronner.