For the last three weeks, President Trump’s approval rating has steadily ticked downward. It now sits at 41.1 percent,1 according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker.
This is notable, because it’s the lowest Trump’s approval rating has been since the House of Representatives was in the midst of conducting its impeachment inquiry in November 2019.
It’s not exactly hard to unpack why this is happening now. Trump has gotten consistently low marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and many Americans also don’t approve of how he’s responded to the protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police officers last month.
The question is: Just how much does this latest shift in approval numbers matter?
Trump, of course, has had an approval rating of 41 percent before. In fact, it has hovered between 40 and 45 percent for most of his presidency, making his approval rating the steadiest of any president since World War II.
FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Americans Dislike How Trump Is Handling The Crises
So it’s an open question where Trump’s approval rating will go from here. It could have already hit its nadir, given how consistent the upper and lower bounds have been, in which case it might continue steadily along at this level. Or it could slide even further and match some of his most unpopular moments as president. For example, Trump’s approval rating hovered between 37 and 38 percent in the last two months of 2017, following his “both sides” response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of course, it’s also possible his numbers could tick back up. Remember that, prior to this downturn, Trump’s approval was actually the highest it had been since he took office in January 2017 — 45 to 46 percent, on average — likely thanks to a “rally-around-the-flag” bounce in response to his initial handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The important takeaway at this point, though, is that for all the talk of Trump being “Teflon Don,” he isn’t actually indestructible. The downward movement in his approval rating belies the notion that nothing matters when it comes to public opinion of this president — his actions and events can, in fact, affect his standing. And for that reason, his reelection chances could now be in real danger.
[Related: Is Public Opinion Turning Against President Trump?]
We don’t know if Trump’s approval will fall below 40 percent this time around, but it will matter whether Trump’s approval is closer to 40 percent or 45 percent in November. Take the 2018 midterm elections. Then, Trump’s approval rating was just shy 42 percent in our tracker. That was significant, considering that 90 percent of the voters who disapproved of the president backed Democrats in their House vote, according to the exit polls.
And already, with Trump’s approval rating slipping below 42 percent once again, we’re seeing poor numbers for him in head-to-head polls against the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. Throughout April and May, Biden led Trump by about 4 to 6 points in RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls, but since the start of the protests around Floyd’s death, Biden’s lead has increased to 8 points.
Other data points in recent national polls hint at how Trump’s poor approval rating could hurt him in November, too. First, CNN/SSRS’s early June survey found Biden winning 92 percent of voters who disapproved of Trump, which is roughly in line with what the 2018 exit polls found. Similarly, Emerson College found Biden winning 91 percent of those who disapproved of Trump in its early June poll. What these two polls suggest is that even if Trump gets overwhelming support from those who do approve of him — in particular Republicans — an approval rating of 40 percent probably won’t be enough to win, especially if Biden is winning 90 percent of the voters who disapprove of Trump, as this is a much larger group.
[Related: How Popular Is President Donald Trump?]
This is doubly true if independent voters are also turned off by Trump, as they backed him by 4 points in 2016, according to the exit polls. And there’s reason to believe Trump might already be in trouble with independents. That CNN poll found, for instance, Trump trailing by 11 points with this group, while a Monmouth University poll conducted in late May and early June had Trump down by 16 points. Other surveys have found Trump in slightly better shape with independents, although still trailing Biden. For instance, an early June poll from NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist had him behind by 4 points, and the latest survey from The Economist/YouGov had him down by 3 points. The margins here matter, but at this stage, the polls generally agree that Trump’s losing among independents, which isn’t a good sign for his reelection chances.
Of course, with roughly five months to go until Election Day, Trump has time for his approval rating to bounce back, just as it has previously. Trump’s actions, as we’ve seen, can negatively affect his ratings, but it’s also within his power to boost them. But the more Trump’s approval rating hangs out around the 40 percent mark, the harder it is to imagine him attracting enough support to win reelection — especially given his inability to broaden his appeal. And as we’ve said before, Trump’s base won’t be enough.