Getting up Thursday morning on the 20th day of the partial federal government shutdown, one senses that President Trump and his party are not in a good place.
For the record, the longest government shutdown was 21 days under President Clinton, from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996. Prior to the current closure, the second-longest was 18 days in 1978 under President Carter. At the time of this writing, we haven’t seen any telephone polls using live interviewers, the kind we give the most weight to, since the New Year began; no ABC News/Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, Gallup, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, or the like, though we should soon. As of this year, the Gallup Organization will be reporting its presidential job-approval numbers monthly, not weekly as it has in recent years.
The only available national polling as of Thursday morning were several using either robo-telephone, internet interviewing, or, in some cases, a combination of both technologies, and they are reinforcing the perception that Trump’s approval numbers are down—perhaps not at his lowest levels ever but as low as they have been in three or four months. Specifically, I am not a big fan of the numbers that are usually found in the Rasmussen, Economist/YouGov, or Reuters/Ipsos polls. These technologies consistently report polling with higher Trump and Republican numbers than other polls do: The final Rasmussen poll before the midterm election showed the GOP ahead by a point in the national generic congressional ballot test, the final Economist/YouGov had Democrats up by 5 points, and the final Reuters/Ipsos poll had Democrats up by 7 points. Meanwhile, the most recent national popular vote tally compiled by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report has Democrats winning across all 2018 House races by 8.6 points.
But what we have seen over the last two years is that when Trump’s approval ratings improved in some of the more traditional polls, his numbers tended to go up in the robo- and internet polls as well, and when they decline in one set of those polls, they tend to go down in the other. The RealClearPolitics average of major national polls—the three most recent being Rasmussen, Economist/YouGov, and Reuters/Ipsos—pegs Trump’s approval ratings at 42.3 percent, the lowest since late September, and his disapprovals at 53.9 percent, the highest since early October. The most recent Rasmussen polling, released Thursday morning, had the president’s approval rating at 45 percent, the lowest since July, and his disapproval rating at 53 percent, the highest since Dec. 18. Rasmussen’s “Approval Index,” a comparison of the "strongly approve" (32 percent) and "strongly disapprove" (46 percent) numbers, shows Trump at -14 points, the worst since July.
One can like or dislike Trump, approve or disapprove of the idea of a border wall, whether it is concrete, steel, or whatever, or the need for tighter border security and a tougher line on illegal immigration. Either way, it is hard to argue with the statement that Trump is not exactly at the top of his game; his comment that “this is a humanitarian crisis—a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” rings a bit hollow with his previous descriptions of those coming over the border as “drug dealers,” “criminals,” “rapists,” and “animals.” In an off-the-record luncheon with television network anchors, the president reportedly conceded that he didn’t think the speech would accomplish much and indicated his heart wasn’t much into it, but that he had been talked into the nationally televised address by his staff. It showed.
Though there are some cracks in support for Trump’s handling of the government shutdown among Republican elected officials in recent days, most pre-Christmas polls were still showing overall support for the president quite high among fellow Republicans. For example, the Dec. 6-9 CNN poll showed that 84 percent of Republicans approved of the job he was doing, and 71 percent of Republicans strongly approved, while the Dec. 12-17 Quinnipiac University poll showed an 82 percent approval rating among Republicans, with 68 percent strongly approving. While the overall approval ratings for Trump among Republicans in the Dec. 9-11 Fox News poll showed 88 percent of Republicans approving, his numbers among Republicans strongly approving was lower, at 56 percent.
Even if the next wave of polls show Republicans still quite supportive of Trump and to a certain extent his handling of the wall and shutdown, the numbers are likely to show real problems for him and his party among non-Republicans, specifically among independents and moderates. Republican House members and those senators up for reelection in 2020 in all but the reddest districts and states will be growing increasingly nervous about where all of this is headed.
Obviously, with almost 22 months to go before the next general election and with most Republican lawmakers facing reelection holding fairly safe seats, pressure on the GOP in Congress is less than intense, but it is more than inconsequential. For most, the calculation involves the risk of drawing either a primary opponent or just a negative tweet from Trump (ask former Rep. Mark Sanford how that works out).
But things are likely to get worse before they get any better. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to finish his report by the end of next month, and even assuming that he does not indict Trump, it’s not likely to be a pretty sight for the White House. People should stop focusing on the word “collusion.” There is no collusion statute; it’s not really even a legal term. But the optics are looking worse: The allegation that while running the Trump campaign Paul Manafort was giving a source close to Russian intelligence some of the campaign's polling data certainly looks awful. And it should be remembered that special counsels are the prosecutorial version of a full cavity search; they can look into pretty much anything they want, related to the original mission or not, and as a result, can be extremely problematic for a president. Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress and President Clinton statements about his relationship with the former White House intern didn’t have much to do with the original Whitewater real-estate deal, but they certainly did a lot of harm to him and his legacy.
Nothing good is going to come of this for Trump. Toss in a global economy slowing down, along with evidence of the U.S. economy slowing down, and there is little reason for good cheer in the new year for Republicans, only the question of how much worse might things get.