When I was younger and newer to the world of politics, whenever old-timers would talk of historical patterns and tendencies about macro-political dynamics, I would invariably roll my eyes. Everything was in the here and now, nothing before really mattered, and besides, all politics is local, as the late Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said.
Age and experience has taught me, as the saying goes, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And to the extent that all politics may have once been local, that’s no longer the case. Americans increasingly vote on a more parliamentary level: In any given election, they vote primarily or entirely for the red team or the blue side. Recall that 2016 was the first time since the Senate became elected by voters rather than state legislators in 1914 that every single Senate seat was won by the same party that carried it in the presidential contest. The ticket-splitting of previous decades is becoming increasingly rare, and politics has become ever more national in scope.
Since the end of World War II, in the six occasions that a party has held the White House for eight consecutive years, that party has lost its bid for a third term five times. Americans tend to vote for change, no matter if the sitting president is particularly popular or not. The notable exception was in 1988. After President Reagan’s two terms, voters elevated his vice president, George H.W. Bush, giving the GOP 12 years in the White House. Al Gore nearly duplicated the feat in 2000. Winding down eight years in the White House, Bill Clinton's job-approval rating was 57 percent, which helped to vault Gore to a half-point victory in the national popular vote. But he and running mate Joe Lieberman lost in the Electoral College.
At the other end of the scale, although President George W. Bush had recorded a 90 percent Gallup approval rating soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, an unpopular Iraq War and other factors dropped his ratings to just 25 percent at the end of eight years. The financial crisis and ensuing recession, combined with the all-too-frequent “time for a change" dynamic meant that, to the extent that John McCain had any chance of beating then-Sen. Barack Obama, it ended with the stock-market collapse and the Great Recession. Eight years later, Obama’s approval rating was 53 percent when Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College—though like Gore, she triumphed in the popular vote, this time by 2 points.
With President Trump still in his first term, why is this relevant? It might be that one Trump year is the same as two years of another president in office—and that the electorate has already reached a tipping point with him.
It is clear that Trump’s numbers have dropped some in recent weeks. The only dispute is by how much—and how far those numbers could drop if things don’t turn around. For all of the talk about the Trump base, there is some question about just how big that base is. Let’s approach it from two different directions. His lowest overall job-approval ratings in polling by CNN, Gallup, and PBS/NPR/Marist College polling was 35 percent; it was 36 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll, and 38 percent in both the Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls. By these measures, his base looks to be in the mid-30s, although it should be noted that these lows were for the most part registered in 2017 or early 2018. Since that time, his approval ratings have generally ranged in the low-to-high 40s.
Another definition of "base" might be the percentage of voters who approve, if asked, strongly. But just looking at polls from May and early June, Trump's strong approvals were 28 percent in the Fox News and Quinnipiac polls, 31 percent in NBC/WSJ, and 32 percent in the ABC/WaPo poll. That argues for a definition of "base" in the low 30s. Currently, Trump’s overall approval rating in the RealClearPolitics average is 42 percent.
My hunch is that he has a base of about 40 or 41 percent—that for the most part, anyone who has stuck with him this far will not abandon him under any circumstances. That’s short of the 46 percent that he received in 2016, and he likely will need to do better than that given that the third-party, independent, and write-in vote is likely to be a lot less than the 6 percent it was in 2016, more like the 1 to 4 percent that has been the norm over the last 50 years.
I would make the case that what has contributed to the slippage that Trump has seen in recent weeks is related to his personality and behavior, his words and rather chaotic style of governing. Voters were willing to look beyond so long as the economy was good, but tolerance of his unconventional nature is reduced in the absence of a strong economy. For those voters who neither love Trump nor loathe him, his handling of the coronavirus and the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd have severely compromised his appeal. His apparent affinity for Confederate heritage of late will not help him outside of his base, either.
Polling suggests that there is an accumulated weariness that has been developing over time but may have reached a critical mass in recent weeks. The question is whether, for Trump, the "time for a change" that is normal after eight years may be happening in just four.