How Will Independents Break on Iran?

Charlie Cook New
January 14, 2020

The standoff between the United States and Iran at one point looked quite possibly like the beginning of a war. Now both sides have wisely pulled back from the brink, at least for the time being.

But when it comes to public opinion, Iran is hardly an isolated event, for better or worse. Most voters have been watching and judging President Trump for years. What will be their takeaways from these events? What pattern do they ascertain?

According to the Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls for the last year, President Trump’s approval ratings have remained in a narrow range of 42 and 47 percent, while his disapproval has run from 51 to 57 percent.

When you focus down on those with strong opinions either for or against the president, Trump’s strong approval ranged from a low of 29 percent to a high of 33 percent, a very tight range. His strong disapprovals went from as low as 41 to as high as 47 percent. The truth is that many people had already developed an opinion on Trump even before he took the oath of office, and few have changed those opinions—at least not enough to get them to shift their allegiances.

While other recent presidents certainly endured low points during their first three years in office, they were just that—low points on a continuum—not the average. Trump’s Gallup approval ratings are actually slightly better right now than President Obama’s were at this point in his first term. But Obama’s numbers had been higher before and would go on to be higher again, while Trump remains stuck in this narrow trading range.

While job-approval ratings have been very good metrics to measure how an incumbent president will do in a reelection campaign, party identification is an even better metric. When Gallup aggregated the more than 29,000 interviews they conducted last year, they found that 30 percent of respondents considered themselves Democrats, 29 percent said they were Republicans, and 41 percent were independent. We know from history that about 90 percent of partisans vote for the candidates of their own party.

But a lot of independents aren’t really that independent. When those who initially call themselves independents are pressed, they admit they lean toward one party or the other. In fact, they vote for their preferred party about 80 percent of the time.

When you lump them in with the committed partisans, you get about 47 percent who sympathize with Democrats and 42 percent who sympathize with the GOP, so there are a lot more “soft Democrats” than there are soft Republicans. A determined 11 percent remained “pure” independents with no lean.

Both of these factors give Democrats something to cheer about, even if the Electoral College still tilts the playing field in Republicans’ favor.

Iran is just one of hundreds of data points that Americans have viewed in the last three years, and there is very little reason to believe that the events of the last 10 days will move any of the roughly 70 to 80 percent who strongly approve or strongly disapprove of Trump, only the 20 to 30 percent who only “somewhat” approve, disapprove, or are undecided. And if the hundreds of other things haven’t seemed to matter, why should this?

Before we fold in the implications of Iran, let’s keep in mind that the variances aren’t among people who already have strong opinions about Trump. It’s the ones who don’t gravitate towards either party’s corner.

In a very smart column for CNN, analyst Ronald Brownstein pointed out that “Republicans cheering Trump's decision to target Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani have invariably described it as decisive. Democrats criticizing his choice have denounced it as impulsive. Whether voters ultimately see Trump’s decisionmaking in this case, and his handling of foreign policy more broadly, as decisive or impulsive could prove the pivotal dynamic in determining how comfortable they are with him managing the nation's global relations for a second term.”

Is Trump “bold” or “belligerent”? Someone who calls them as he sees them or someone who just meanders his way through policy decisions? Is he crazy like a fox or just in well over his head?

Among those who naturally like Trump and/or approve of the job he is doing, we know how they will answer those questions. We know the views of those who distinctly dislike and disapprove of his performance as well. These questions are really only pertinent for those in the middle.

Here is the frustrating thing: These people in the middle, the truly malleable ones, tend to read, watch, or listen to news less than others. Politics is something that they don’t spend much time thinking about, and they decide late. So the suspense will go on.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on January 7, 2020