One of the most amusing things about politics is how binary people tend to be in their thinking. Whether it is partisans and true believers, independents, or political reporters, things are often either wonderful or horrible for any given party or candidate. Gradations in between, important distinctions, or changing circumstances are not to be bothered with.
Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty, whom I think very highly of, wrote the other day that Democrats “should worry” about the “mediocre” turnout at the Iowa caucuses, it being roughly the same as the 170,000 who attended in 2016 but far less than the 240,000 from 2008, when Barack Obama won. Another word for the turnout might have been “normal.” We shouldn’t use as a baseline for comparison a caucus that had unprecedented turnout, featuring not only an electric candidate like Obama, but also Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, in a three-way photo finish instead of the two-way this year between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
Democrats are also sorely disappointed over President Trump’s acquittal in the impeachment trial. But should this outcome really have been a surprise to anyone? The effort never had the slightest chance for success, which would have meant 20 Republican senators joining the 47 Democrats to reach the 67 needed to convict and remove Trump from office. To undertake the most divisive action in American government, to remove a president from office by a vote in Congress without strong public support, with less than a year to go before that same president is to face the voters, was always a fool’s errand. Even worse, it was bound to overshadow the Democratic presidential candidates’ messaging and feed into Trump’s grievance that Democrats were simply trying to substitute their own will for that of the people.
Then there is the matter of presidential job-approval rating, which moved up to 49 percent in the Gallup poll, the high-water mark of Trump’s presidency. It absolutely seems to be the case that the president’s approval ratings in most of the major polls is now in the top half of his trading range. Poll averages for Trump’s approval, done by both RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight, show an uptick, but certainly not a surge yet.
Gallup, in fact, is the only poll so far that shows Trump breaking out from his range, which had been between 35 percent and 46 percent so far in his term. There should be plenty of national polls conducted after Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary that will tell us whether he has broken out of that range in any others.
When I was a young pollster, I learned that one poll wasn’t a trend. You wait for several, comparing that poll with previous ones by that same polling organization using the same methodologies. After all, there are “house effects” in each poll that make apples-to-apples comparisons more prudent.
We come next to the economy. Friday’s unemployment numbers remained at historic lows. But if the amazingly low unemployment rate and an economy that still looks pretty healthy results in just a 49 percent approval rating (to cherry-pick the top number), that should say something. Trump’s job-approval ratings for handling the economy have been in the mid-50s for some time; it’s just that his overall ratings are much lower, affected by other issues and policies and by his unique behavior.
Don’t get me wrong. This presidential election, at least at the Electoral College level (the only part that matters), is going to be close. Really close. But until we know who Democrats nominate, none of this other stuff matters a whole lot. So far there is only one question throughout the Trump presidency that has had a major impact: Do people love or loathe him? Other factors, such as economic performance, trade wars with China, whether it looked like a peace deal with North Korea was in the offing or foreign policy was in tatters, debates over gun violence and climate change, have never seemed to matter. The people that loved Trump in February and March of 2017 pretty much still do. Those who loathed him then still pretty much do. Few minds have changed.
So it is now. No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, given how impervious Trump’s numbers have been to news events and developments, taking a deep breath is well-advised.