It doesn’t take much to spur pundits and reporters to declare that President Trump is on the verge of a “pivot.” Maybe new chief of staff John Kelly will bring Trump into line, Axios reported. Maybe, after the failure1 of the Republican health care bill last week, the White House will reach out to Democrats to work with them on tax reform and other issues, according to a Daily Caller report.
Maybe. But probably not. It’s not just that these pivot predictions have never really come true before. It’s also that, in attempting a pivot to the center, Trump would run the risk of losing more support among conservatives than he’d gain among moderates.
Trump’s problem is that there aren’t many voters who could plausibly be persuaded to join the Trump train, at least not on short notice. Not only are Trump’s disapproval ratings high — about 58 percent of the country now disapproves of Trump’s job performance, the highest figure of his presidency to date — but also most of the voters who disapprove of him do so strongly.
In May, when we looked at polls that broke Trump’s approval rating into four categories — strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove and strongly disapprove — we found that his strong disapproval ratings exceeded his strong approval ratings by about a 2:1 margin. The numbers have actually gotten a little worse for Trump since then. His strong disapproval rating, based on the technique FiveThirtyEight uses to calculate approval ratings, is now 47.4 percent, up from 44.1 percent on May 23. And Trump’s strong approval rating is just 20.4 percent, down a tick from 21.4 percent in May.
Almost half the country strongly disapproves of Trump
Average job approval ratings for President Trump, as of Aug. 2
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As we wrote back in the spring, it’s something of a myth that Trump has an enormous base that’s impervious to any and all missteps from the White House. Instead, he has his fair share of support, but it’s a mix of base voters (about 20 percent of the population) and other voters who support him more reluctantly (16 or 17 percent of Americans “somewhat approve” of Trump).
What Trump doesn’t have is very many people who “somewhat disapprove” of his performance; this group makes up only about 11 percent of the country. It might not sound helpful to have voters who somewhat disapprove of you, but they’re a lot easier to bring over to your side than voters who strongly disapprove of you.
Suppose, for instance, that as a result of an attempted pivot — wherein Trump took centrist positions on taxes and a couple of other high-profile issues — voter preferences were scrambled, and half the voters who were formerly in the “somewhat disapprove” category moved to somewhat approving of Trump’s performance instead. (Chances are that a lot of these voters would be moderates, who are overrepresented among the “somewhat disapprove” group.2) But conversely, half the voters who had somewhat approved of Trump’s performance moved to somewhat disapproving of him instead. (Most of these voters would probably be conservatives, who outnumber moderates in the “somewhat approve” group.) That would not be a good trade for Trump; his overall approval rating would fall to 34.1 percent while his disapproval rating would rise to 61.1 percent.
That doesn’t mean I have a better idea about what Trump and Kelly should do. As I mentioned, Trump’s base isn’t all that large, so doubling down on appeals to his base isn’t necessarily a great strategy either.
Trump does have the benefit of time; presidential approval ratings after six months in office aren’t very predictive of what those ratings will look like at election time. (Jimmy Carter was more popular than Ronald Reagan at this point in their respective terms, for example.) And given how political coalitions are currently constructed, Republicans have some structural advantages in the way seats and votes are distributed in both Congress and the Electoral College.
So Trump has every incentive to play the long game. If he were to really and truly pivot and sustain that new course, perhaps some of the 47 percent of voters who are currently in the “strongly disapprove” camp would eventually become reluctant supporters, after stopping in the “somewhat disapprove” category along the way.
But if Trump is looking for a short-term fix, a pivot probably won’t work. A sloppy attempt at a pivot — in which Trump loses conservative support faster than he gains support from moderates — could turn into one of his nightmare scenarios from the list of possible presidencies we imagined in February:
Trump flails around aimlessly after an unsuccessful attempt to pivot. In this scenario, Trump is like George Steinbrenner running the 1980s New York Yankees, firing his managers and changing course all the time without ever really getting anywhere. Instead, he churns through advisers and alienates allies faster than he makes new ones. In one version of the scenario, Trump attempts a Frum-ian pivot to the center but it fails — Congressional Republicans don’t go along with with the program, and it costs him credibility with his base more quickly than it wins him new converts. By early 2019, there are impeachment proceedings against Trump, and several Republicans are considering challenging him for the 2020 nomination. Trump winds up being something of a lame duck despite being in his first term, drawing comparisons to Jimmy Carter.
I’m not sure we’re on this path yet. But there are some signs of it. The recent downtick in Trump’s approval ratings — after a couple of months when his numbers were steady — coincides with a period where Trump is getting more scrutiny, both from Republicans in Congress and from the conservative media. These are measured steps — it’s not like Republicans have begun impeachment proceedings or Sean Hannity has abandoned Trump. But in his time as president so far, Trump has found more ways to lose supporters than to gain them.