When it comes to presidential approval ratings, the days of big swings in opinion and sky-high ratings are gone.
Consider that former President Donald Trump’s approval rating mostly hovered between 40 and 45 percent, earning him the distinction of having the steadiest approval rating of any president since World War II. In fact, one way Trump embodied the nickname “Teflon Don” so early was by how little his approval numbers moved in response to the many controversies swirling around him.1 Former President Barack Obama also saw small fluctuations in his approval numbers.
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It’s early yet, but President Biden’s initial approval marks aren’t all that impressive, either. Or at least that’s true when compared to past presidents’ ratings in the first few months of their presidency, often referred to as the “honeymoon” period. (According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 53 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance,2 whereas at this point in the presidency, most new presidents’ approval ratings have usually been closer to 60 percent.)
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So if the new normal is presidential approval ratings that don’t change all that much, is it time to abandon them?
Not so fast. On the one hand, we do need to recalibrate our expectations of presidential approval ratings. They’re just not going to move that much in our hyper-polarized political climate. But that doesn’t mean approval ratings aren’t a useful window into how the public broadly views a president’s performance. Or that they can’t still signal a change in political fortunes. And once we move past the presidency, approval ratings of other American leaders, such as governors, see wider ranges of support largely because partisanship isn’t quite as baked in at the state level.
First, the presidency. Nowadays, it’s just harder to have a glowing approval rating. That’s in large part thanks to the rise of negative partisanship, which compels most members of the opposing party to disapprove of a new president right from the start. Consider Gallup’s presidential approval polling conducted the month after the last five inaugurations of new presidents. When Gallup surveyed Americans in February 1993 after Bill Clinton became president, they found that 74 percent of Democrats approved of Clinton’s job performance, compared to 24 percent of Republicans. Now, that 50-point partisan gap in Clinton’s approval rating was nothing to sneeze at, but as the table below shows, it has only grown, with both Trump and Biden facing an 80-plus point gap along party lines in their early approval polls.
Presidential approval ratings have gotten more partisan
Approval rating in February of a president’s first year in office, overall and by partisan affiliation, since 1993
|George W. Bush||57||32||88||56||
In short, the ceiling of a new president’s approval rating is somewhat baked in from the start. Of course, the flip side is that support from a president’s own party may be less likely to slip, which means the floor of a president’s job approval is also more baked in. For instance, while few Democrats ever approved of Trump, the reason his approval rating rarely sunk below 40 percent was because his approval rating among Republicans remained high. In his first year, it rarely dipped below 80 percent, and from late in 2018 to the time he left office, he averaged nearly 90 percent approval among Republicans. So if Trump’s support among Republicans is any indication, Biden’s strong hold over Democratic voters should last beyond the early days of his presidency, too. Already, most recent polls have Biden polling at around 90 percent among Democrats.
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But the important takeaway here is not that shifts in presidential approval can’t still happen. They can. We just need to adjust our expectations of how big these swings will be. Observers might have once looked for swings of 10 or more percentage points to gauge how the public responded to an especially big event — like Ronald Reagan’s double-digit decline after the Iran-Contra affair became public — but that just isn’t a useful barometer anymore.
Take the largest and quickest slide in Trump’s approval, which came after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, toward the end of his time in office. That incident sparked national outrage, particularly given Trump’s role in inciting the violence, but even then, his approval rating had only fallen by about 5 points nine days later, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker. (There were only two other instances where Trump’s approval rating fell by even half as much — so 2.5 or more points — in a nine-day period. Once in February 2017, after he issued executive orders to begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to suspend the refugee program and prohibit entry for visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and then again in May 2017, after Trump dismissed James Comey as director of the FBI.)
Long story short: Big swings in presidential approval are probably a thing of the past. But small shifts in a president’s approval rating can still indicate meaningful changes in opinion that may foreshadow future electoral outcomes.3 For instance, the fact that Trump’s approval rating was stuck in the lows 40s for almost his entire presidency suggested real electoral vulnerability. And it was a big reason why Democrats flipped the House in the 2018 midterms and Trump didn’t win reelection in 2020. Had Trump managed to get his approval north of 45 percent by Election Day 2020, he very well may have won, considering the narrow margins in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin and Republicans’ advantage in the Electoral College. We shouldn’t read too much into Biden’s approval rating at this point, but the fact that he is starting out in a stronger position than Trump, with an approval rating in the low 50s, is a good sign for him. If he can maintain an approval rating in that vicinity — or marginally raise it by a couple of points — that could help Democrats limit the typical midterm losses for the president’s party in 2022 and help Biden win reelection in 2024.
Beyond the national picture, state-level approval polling on other public officials, such as governors, is still quite useful, too. Sometimes we even see high or low marks for a governor that cut against expectations because, in state-level politics, partisanship doesn’t quite as automatically send voters to their blue and red corners as it does in national politics.
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Take Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. He gets better ratings from Democrats than he does from his own party members in deep-blue Massachusetts. MassINC Polling Group found his approval rating at 74 percent overall in February, but at 86 percent among Democrats compared to 62 percent among Republicans. By comparison, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mismanagement of his state’s COVID-19 response has not only prevented him from gaining much cross-party support from Republicans, but it has also cost him a meaningful slice of Democratic support. In recent surveys, only around 50 percent of Californians have said they approve of Newsom, an underwhelming showing for a Democrat in a state where Biden won 63 percent of the vote last November. In fact, Newsom’s middling numbers are partly the result of only about 7 in 10 Democrats supporting him.
This isn’t to say that partisanship doesn’t still play a role. For instance, Democrats who currently approve of Baker could very easily end up voting against him in 2022 should he run again — Massachusetts, after all, is a very blue state. But this is where approval ratings still have real value: Baker’s approval rating (74 percent) is somewhat higher than even his very strong share of the vote in his 2018 reelection win (67 percent of the vote), which suggests at least a few people have changed their minds about him, and in a positive direction. So if he can maintain such a high approval rating, that would give him a real chance of once again garnering strong cross-party backing in 2022 and winning a third term despite belonging to the weaker party in Massachusetts. On the other hand, Newsom looks likely to face a recall election this year, and while he is favored to survive it, a further drop in his support among Democrats could signal real vulnerability.
All in all, approval ratings can still tell us a lot about how the public views its leaders, even in our deeply polarized political environment. We just need to recalibrate our expectations for what’s meaningful when it comes to swings in presidential approval, and to remember that data on state officials can still reveal quite a bit about how well-liked or disliked someone is.