President Trump pardoned ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County on Friday night. Arpaio, known for his hardline stance on illegal immigration, had been convicted of criminal contempt for violating a federal court order commanding his department to stop racially profiling Latinos.
National surveys conducted before the pardon suggest it’s likely to be unpopular with the public. But that doesn’t mean it will drive Trump’s job approval rating lower. His approval rating, 37 percent, is already pretty low — many Americans who will disapprove of the pardon already disapprove of the president. The Arpaio pardon, moreover, is in keeping with Trump’s previous actions and rhetoric on issues of race and immigration specifically and cultural issues generally, meaning it’s unlikely to split the electorate in a new way.
Still, it almost certainly will not boost the public’s opinion of Trump, and there are a few reasons to think that if it has an effect, it could hurt Trump’s standing at the margin. First, while Trump’s approval ratings have not been much affected when he takes an unpopular-but-predictable stance on cultural issues, he is more vulnerable when his statements or actions draw fire from both sides of the aisle. And the Arpaio pardon has already attracted criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
It’s also polled poorly. A YouGov survey taken Thursday and Friday showed 24 percent in favor of a potential Arpaio pardon, 37 percent opposed and 39 percent with no opinion. After being informed of the arguments for and against the pardon, 30 percent were for it and 45 percent were against it with 25 percent still unsure. A national survey taken in August by the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports showed that a majority of voters opposed the pardon. After being informed by the pollster that Arpaio “has been found guilty of criminal contempt for ignoring a judge’s order to stop traffic patrols targeting illegal immigrants,” only 31 percent of respondents replied that they were in favor of a pardon and 53 percent said they were against it.1
As the polls above show, a lot of people nationally didn’t have an opinion of a potential Arpaio pardon one way or the other. But a poll taken this week in Arizona, where people know Arpaio best, offers Trump little hope if he’s banking that voters nationwide will like his pardon more as they get to know more about Arpaio. OH Predictive Insights found that just 21 percent of Arizonans favored the pardon while 50 percent were against it. That is consistent with the fact that Arpaio lost re-election last year after being charged with criminal contempt, though he had not yet been convicted. Still, the large margin of public disagreement with Trump’s decision to pardon Arpaio is somewhat surprising given that both Maricopa County and Arizona overall narrowly went for Trump last year. This implies that Arpaio rubbing off on Trump could hurt the president both in this key swing state and nationwide as Arpaio becomes better known outside his home state.
Additionally, Trump announced the pardon on a Friday night, just before a major hurricane hit the Texas coastline. That may mean that voters will be too preoccupied to care about the pardon. But if Trump’s performance during the hurricane is seen as poor, the Arpaio pardon will likely add to the backlash against the president. And Democrats would be almost certain to argue that Trump used a natural disaster as a distraction to keep the nation’s focus off an unpopular pardon, or that he prioritized a controversial pardon over preparing the federal government to assist in disaster-relief efforts.
Perhaps the good news for Trump is that his pardon may not be popular, but few high-profile pardons are. In fact, they have almost always been really unpopular. That was certainly the case with Bill Clinton’s pardon of businessman Marc Rich. Likewise, most Americans disapproved of George H.W. Bush’s decision to pardon a number of people involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. And it’s not just wealthy or well-connected people whom Americans oppose pardoning. Most Americans were not in favor of Jimmy Carter’s decision to pardon those who fled the country or never registered to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
Of course, Trump’s, or really any president’s, biggest fear is that voters will punish him for a pardon like voters did Gerald Ford for his pardon of ex-president Richard Nixon. Ford’s job approval rating plummeted overnight and never really recovered. Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is unlikely to be nearly so toxic, however, given that Ford took over for Nixon and Nixon was involved in a major coverup as president.
Still, the numbers show that a high-profile pardon such as Trump’s of Arpaio is rarely good for a president’s popularity, which may be why recent presidents have tended to grant more pardons as they approach the end of their second terms. And while the major hurricane wreaking havoc in Texas may distract voters from this move for the time being, in the longer term, an unpopular Trump making an unpopular pardon probably isn’t good politics.