This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on June 5, 2017
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has gone out of business, but Washington is still providing a three-ring circus.
The first is President Trump’s decision to drop out of the Paris climate-change agreement. In Gallup’s three-day-moving-average tracking polls conducted since Trump took office, his highest approval rating for a three-day period was 46 percent, and his highest full week was 45 percent, right after his inauguration. Since then, his weekly average has been 41 percent, with lows of 38 percent for a week and 35 percent for three days.
Over the past couple of months, Trump’s approval/disapproval ratings have been remarkably stable. On a good day, his approval numbers will tick up to 41 or 42 percent, and on a bad day they will dip down to 38 or 39 percent. During and just after his trip to Europe, he was up to 41 and 42 percent, but in the subsequent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday interviewing—the first three soundings after his Thursday morning announcement that the U.S. would drop out of the climate accord—his approval dropped to 36 percent (with 58 percent disapproval).
In numbers released Monday afternoon, covering Friday through Sunday nights, he ticked up a point to 37 percent approval, while his disapproval rating went down a point to 57 percent. This is lower than his usual 38 to 42 percent approval range, but only by a touch. In polling that looks at intensity, Trump’s strong positives have declined while his strong negatives have inched up, but his overall numbers haven’t moved much.
Trump’s numbers are bad, but other presidents have had troughs too. In Gallup polling, four chief executives have seen their approval ratings drop into the 20s: Richard Nixon (24 percent), George W. Bush (25 percent), Jimmy Carter (28 percent), and George H.W. Bush (29 percent). Ronald Reagan dropped as low as 35 percent while Bill Clinton dipped to 37 percent and Barack Obama bottomed out at 40 percent. Among presidents who were not initially elected, Harry Truman fell to 22 percent, Lyndon Johnson to 35 percent, and Gerald Ford to 37 percent.
The second circus ring is former FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony, which is scheduled for Thursday. Given all of the information that’s already been leaked from Comey’s contemporaneous notes, we aren’t likely to get a lot of earthshaking revelations, but he will probably reinforce what we have already heard, which is not particularly helpful to the White House. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking at a wide range of issues, but I don’t think we’ll be hearing a lot of leaks from his shop. The same can’t be said for the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Trump may wish he had treated the CIA and FBI with a little more respect a few months ago.
The third ring is the special election in Georgia’s 6th District on June 20. Democrats came up short in two other closely watched special elections, but both were in districts friendly to Republicans. The suburban Atlanta district looks a lot more like the ones that are going to decide which party has the majority in January 2019. Twenty-three House Republicans are sitting in districts that Hillary Clinton won, and the 6th District is one of the half-dozen or so other GOP-held districts that Trump won but not by much—in this case, a bit less than 2 percentage points. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to capture the House.
An analysis by Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman shows that Republicans have a lot to be worried about. Looking at the three seriously contested special elections so far—the bipartisan primary in Georgia, the Kansas 4th District special election on April 11 and the May 25 contest for the at-large Montana seat—the Democratic candidates got an average of 72 percent of the vote that Hillary Clinton received, while the Republicans in those three districts averaged just 56 percent of the Trump vote. Special-election turnouts are never as high as they are in a presidential year, but these are three GOP-held seats where Republicans simply didn’t participate in even remotely the kind of numbers that Democrats did. According to Wasserman, Rob Quist, the Democrat in Montana, pulled 94 percent of the Clinton vote total while Greg Gianforte captured just 68 percent of the votes that Trump did, though he still ended up winning even after body-slamming a reporter. Looking at previous elections, Wasserman estimates that the Democratic candidates have over-performed what a “generic Democrat” in a neutral environment would have received by between 7 and 12 points.
Nobody knows what the political landscape will look like in the fall of 2018, but at least in the summer of 2017, this is not an environment that should make Republicans feel comfortable about their hold on the House.