September 18th, 2020

The Nation

Trump's approval is way down in key states, right? Not exactly

Aaron Blake

By Aaron Blake The Washington Post

Published August 28, 2019

Trump's approval is way down in key states, right? Not exactly
As someone who has written repeatedly about how grim President Donald Trump's poll numbers are - and thinks he's in more trouble than many other analysts do - let me say this: That new poll that supposedly proves it? It's overwrought.

Both the Drudge Report's banner and recently self-appointed anti-Trump crusader Anthony Scaramucci on Tuesday lifted up new polling from Axios and the Morning Consult. "Trump's net approval rating sinks in every battleground state," read the Axios headline.

"More disapproval ahead for @realDonaldTrump," Scaramucci declared. "A shuffling disaster."

"TRUMP TROUBLE IN TOSSUPS?," reads Drudge's headline, which has since been pushed below the banner.

Those shifts look pretty damning. He's lost 18 points off his old net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) in New Hampshire, 20 points in Wisconsin, 18 in Michigan, 18 in Nevada, 26 in Arizona and even 23 in Florida. What could account for such shifts?

The answer: Because it's being compared with the very beginning of his presidency, which was a high point of his presidency and many other presidencies. As Axios discloses (but other promotion ignores), his current numbers in these states are being compared with January 2017. That's when he was inaugurated. Pretty much every president is popular upon inauguration, meaning if you compare their later approval ratings to that, you're likely to find some sort of regression.

Barack Obama's approval rating upon his inauguration was in the mid-60s, for example, and he never reached that height again. George W. Bush's was in the high-50s, and it's not unreasonable to think it might never have topped that if not for the unifying effect of 9/11. Bill Clinton was around where Bush was to start, and he dropped below that for almost his entire first term. That means this chart would have looked fairly similar for him - right up until the 1996 general election, which he won.

The biggest problem is that this creates the appearance of change, when Trump's numbers have shown very little of that. He's had some of the most remarkably static approval ratings for a president, in fact, and there is little reason to believe that's changed much in recent weeks, months or really since the start of 2018. His inauguration is about the only point in his presidency to which you could compare today and see much of a difference. There is simply very little utility in comparing his numbers to then, and much less in suggesting that these polls, which were conducted 31 months apart, present some kind of informative movement.

Next to other, more recent polling, the numbers aren't even that surprising, and some of them are actually pretty good for Trump, if they're accurate. Trump's net approval is minus-10.4 (43.2 percent approve minus 53.6 percent disapprove) in the Real Clear Politics national average.

So the fact that he's minus-14 in Wisconsin, minus-11 in Michigan and minus-8 in Pennsylvania - the three key states he won very narrowly in 2016 - is hardly surprising. The idea that he's just minus-4 in Virginia (which he lost in 2016) and minus-1 in Florida (which is hugely important) would be very good for him.

A better comparison than to Trump's inauguration would be to his election, before he got the inaugural bump. His favorable rating on Election Day 2016 was minus-29 in Wisconsin, minus-20 in Michigan and minus-14 in Pennsylvania, according to exit polls - all worse than his new approval numbers in those states.

Favorable rating isn't completely analogous to approval rating, and he benefited in 2016 from a similarly unpopular opponent in Hillary Clinton. But as you can see, it's hardly necessary that he be above-water in any of these states.

Trump may be in trouble, but this is hardly adding to the data that demonstrate that. And when you see polls suggesting some kind of big shift in Trump's numbers, you should always be wary.

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