Aw column

Is the Trump Bump Real?

AWalter Head
March 28, 2018

Even as Stormy swirls, the president seems to have found his footing. Reporting from the White House press corps is that after a year of on-the-job training, the president is feeling much more confident and eager to follow-through on his 2016 campaign promises. Since the beginning of the year, he’s cleaned house at the cabinet level, taken a harder line on tariffs, especially on Chinese products, and is planning a sit-down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. At the same time, Trump’s overall job approval ratings have been on the upswing. Since March 6th, Trump’s approval rating, as measured by the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average, has been slowly ticking up from 40 percent to 42 percent on March 27th. His disapproval rating has also ticked down over these last three weeks, from 56 percent to 53 percent. While a five-point swing in Trump’s overall job rating isn’t all that remarkable, it is noteworthy that it’s coming at a time of personnel and personal chaos for the president.

What’s remarkable about Trump’s approval ratings during the course of his presidency, is how volatile and totally stable they are at the same time. The Real Clear Politics tracking chart looks like an EKG read-out; there is a short spike, then a drop, a short spike, then a drop. For example, in July and August, Trump’s job approval deficit slowly climbed, from -14 to -20. But, in September, that deficit narrowed - going from -16 to -11. That surge and decline cycle continued in 2018, with Trump’s approval rating deficit rising in February, and then declining in March.

Then there’s the fact that despite all of the upheaval in the country in just the last couple of months — crazy swings in the stock market, the Parkland shooting, Stormy Daniels, White House turn over and tariffs — Trump’s job approval ratings are incredibly stable. In 2018, according to the RCP average, his disapproval and approval ratings have stayed within a narrow three-point range: 39-42 percent approve and 53-56 percent disapprove.

The other challenge in assessing real movement in the polling is the fact that most of the telephone-based surveys come out monthly or bi-weekly, which means they can have a lot of noise. Gallup and SurveyMonkey, which poll every week, have seen much less volatility in 2018. For example, Trump’s overall job approval rating in 2018 in the Gallup surveys has been between 37 and 40 percent. The most recent Gallup poll put Trump at 39 percent - right in the middle. Survey Monkey has had his job approval rating between 40-44 percent, and their latest survey showed Trump on the high end of that range at 44 percent.



So, what about the other major polls, most of which poll once a month. Here, I looked at all the polling these organizations have conducted since 2017.  Like the Gallup and SurveyMonkey, these polls also show a narrow range of movement in his approval and disapproval ratings. For example, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has found that over the course of his presidency Trump's approval rating has never been higher than 44 percent and never dipped lower than 38 percent.  

The good news for Trump, in all but the CBS poll, Trump is closer to his polling ceiling than he is his floor.



Then, I looked at Trump’s job disapproval ratings in those same polls. And, in all but the CBS poll (which was also the only one taken in early March), Trump’s disapproval ratings are closer to his floor than to his ceiling.



In other words, there’s no doubt that even within the narrow trading range of Trump’s approval ratings, he is currently on the higher end of job approval and the lower end of disapproval.

Survey Monkey’s Mark Blumenthal found that Trump’s recent uptick in their survey data is coming mostly from Republicans. Trump’s job approval among Republicans went from 84 percent last fall, to 88 percent in 2018. Working to Trump’s benefit is the fact that Congress is pretty much done with legislating for the year, which means that the intra-party fighting over policy that we saw over health care and then tax reform, will not be a factor. The issue of DACA could emerge as a pressure point for the party should the courts rule on the issue before the fall election. But, the drama around the president’s personal life or even his choices in cabinet personnel (which has been dominating most of the month) aren’t the kinds of things that push GOPers away from supporting the president.

Since early March, Trump’s job approval has ticked up, but it is not any higher than it has been at previous points in his presidency. We will know things are really different this time around if Trump’s approval ratings break through - or at least continue to stay at — his current polling ceiling. However, it seems as if Trump’s floor and his ceiling are well-established with little, it seems, that can fundamentally move them. The more pressing question, especially for Republicans going into 2018, is if Trump’s approval ratings will be on the higher end of the range (say 42-45%) than on the lower end (like 33-38%). While both are empirically pretty terrible numbers for any president, GOP members could have a fighting chance at preserving their House majority if Trump is on the higher end, while the lower end is likely to produce a tsunami-like wipeout.