Until this week, if you were shown a graph of President Trump’s Gallup Poll job-approval ratings since taking office, and told that at some point along that graph, the U.S. dipped into a recession that some feared could even turn into a depression, you would be hard pressed to pinpoint at what point along his 1,183 days in office the recession began.
Maybe we still don't but the Gallup Poll released Thursday afternoon caught a lot of people's eye. Gallup’s latest, covering April 1-14, shows 43 percent approving of Trump, with 54 percent disapproving. That’s 6 points below his 49 percent approval (45 percent disapproval) rating for the period of March 13-22.
While it’s true that this is the biggest drop in Trump’s approval rating from one Gallup Poll to the next, prudence (and experience) tells us not make a big deal out of this until it’s corroborated elsewhere, both in subsequent Gallup polling and surveys from other respected research organizations. One poll does not a trend make.
Moreover, Trump’s numbers have been remarkably static throughout his presidency. Despite events that are about as good as White House occupants can possibly expect—six consecutive months of 50-year-low unemployment rates, for instance—he rarely even approached 50 percent approval. Conversely, stories and behaviors that would be career-killers for anyone else—like hush money paid to nude models, foul language in televised speeches, and some pretty shady meetings—barely dented his approvals.
The truth is that most Americans have fixed views of Trump, with new facts or circumstances mattering very little. As many as three-quarters of voters either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of his performance. For one substantial group of Americans, there is little if anything that he can do right; with another group, there is nothing that he could do wrong. That’s it. Not everyone fits into those groups, but a whole lot do, diminishing the impact of events that in other times would have moved a lot of numbers.
So does this mean that nothing really matters other than whether you love or loathe Trump? It’s tempting to say yes, but with a two-party system and a binary election process, the difference between winning and losing can be slim. (Witness fewer than 78,000 votes in three states, out of 137 million cast nationwide, determining the outcome in 2016.) Legendary coach Vince Lombardi once wrote, “Football is a game of inches and inches make the champion.” Elections can be the same way. Small differences can create big outcomes, and as the election draws closer, decisions loom larger and more consequential.
If small things can tip this election one way or the other, one wonders why President Trump continues to conduct his late-afternoon coronavirus news briefings. Early on, the briefings may have helped him flood the zone with his own messaging and establish a competing narrative from most of the news media. More recently, however, he has come across as unhinged and petulant, as anything but a strong and calm leader in a time of unprecedented crisis. There is no shortage of longtime Republican strategists who have come to cringe when he appears on television.
There is no question that he has been in a hurry to get people back to work and stop the economic free fall that we have been in. But it seems he now understands that the one thing that would kill his reelection hopes more than anything else would be reopening too quickly. If a second or even third wave of the virus hits, he’ll own the decision to release the brakes. Just in the last 48 hours, he’s seemed to scramble for the cover of other elected officials, particularly governors, to take the lead so that if things go badly, they can take the fall.
Having said that, discipline and focus are not Trump’s strong points; his desire to get the economy going collides head on with his need for political cover, to spread the political blame if things don’t go well. For Republican incumbents facing the voters in competitive states come November, this has to make them nervous as well. Just as a lot of Democrats in 2016 let their ambivalence toward Hillary Clinton keep them home on Election Day, Republicans have to worry whether his insistence in staying at the center of things in an uncontrollable crisis might not turn out well for them. These next 202 days until Nov. 3 may be long ones for the GOP.