In an interview with POLITICO’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer this week, Vice President Mike Pence announced an aggressive travel schedule over the next few months aimed at helping to raise money for GOP House and Senate candidates and to promote the GOP tax cut legislation. This comes on the heels of the announcement by the Koch brothers political arm to invest at least $20 million in selling the benefits of the law; a law which even GOP strategists concede remains unpopular. Republicans are also counting on continuing economic good news — whether a rising stock market or the latest news that wages are starting to see some modest increase — to help sell their only significant legislative accomplishment.
Meanwhile, Democrats remain sanguine about these efforts. They point to polling showing Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy, not the middle class, will benefit the most from the new law. This belief, said one Democratic strategist this week, is “baked in” and won’t dissipate even as employees start to see more money in their paychecks.
For all the spinning and posturing there remains a fundamental challenge for the Republicans: the tax bill won’t become more popular unless the president becomes more popular.
In fact, if you look at national support for the tax legislation, you will see that it lines up almost exactly with voters’ overall perception of the president.
In other words, if you like the president, you like the tax reform legislation. If you don’t like Trump, you either don’t like the bill or you are undecided about it. It is a reminder that whatever the president touches carries his polarizing brand.
Even as voters are overwhelmingly positive about the economy, it doesn’t translate to their opinions of the president or the tax law.
For example, even as 58 percent of voters in the ABC/Washington Post survey say they feel good about the state of the economy, just 38 percent approve of the job Trump is doing as president and just 34 percent approve of the tax law. This is why, despite his reputation as the best salesman in America, Trump is hamstrung on promoting the new law. And, why the low-key and more message disciplined Vice President is the one headed out to promote the tax cuts and the economy.
The good news for Republicans is that the president’s overall approval rating has been ticking up since the bill passed. In five of nine reputable telephone surveys released this month, Trump saw a bump in his approval rating between late last year and early this year. They were Monmouth (+18), Fox (+11), CNN (+13), Pew (+7), and Marist (+5). The other four, ABC/Washington Post, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Gallup and Quinnipiac showed either no movement or a slight uptick in his disapproval rating.
However, we also know that Trump doesn’t have all that much more room to grow. For example, the latest Monmouth poll showed Trump at 44 percent job approval, a big jump from the mid-low 30s where he’d been in December. Yet, when those who disapprove of Trump were asked if there was anything Trump could do, other than resign, to make them approve of him, 60 percent said no.
Trump’s decision to double (and triple) down on an agenda that is tailored for his committed (though narrow) group of supporters is what’s responsible for that low ceiling of support. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 69 percent of voters said they didn’t like him personally. Of those, 52 percent said they disliked Trump and disliked his policies, while just 17 percent said they don’t like him personally but approve of his policies. Another twenty-nine percent of voters said they like him personally. Of that group, 23 percent like him and his policies, while six percent like him but not all of his policies. All in all, that adds up to 40 percent of voters who like him/don’t like him, but do like his policies, while 58 percent like/don’t like him but dislike his policies. That makes it hard for him to broaden the level of support for this law or anything else he and the GOP Congress accomplish.
I saw this rift rather clearly this week in a project I did with PBS Newshour. The producers at PBS reached out by phone this week to talk to voters who had participated in a January survey done by Marist College for PBS and NPR.
Of the dozen voters they reached, the only ones to mention the economy positively were those who supported Trump in 2016 and continue to support him today. Aaron, a truck driver from Missouri, was happy to see his 401(k) “going through the roof” and believed that the corporate tax cut would help the company he works for avoid layoffs. Voters who deeply disliked the president viewed the tax cut legislation warily if not intensely negatively. Blanche, a Democrat from Houston, didn’t expect to see the bill’s benefits, while Janet, a Democrat from Iowa, who also really, really dislikes the president, said the tax bill “just benefits big business.”
But, even voters who had positive, to mixed views about the economy and tax reform, weren’t ready to give Trump credit. Todd, an independent and self-described “reluctant Hillary voter” from Houston, sees the economy improving and more people working, but still rates Trump’s tenure thus far as a failure. He sees the president as divisive and “vindictive.” James, a 28-year old college student from Indiana voted for a third-party candidate in 2016. He’s not sure what to think about the tax bill (‘there were some good parts and some bad’), but his overall assessment of the first year of the Trump presidency was more failure than success.
To be sure, the 2018 election remains 10 months and about 30 million news cycles from now. But, while there’s plenty of time for things to change, it’s highly unlikely the president will change his behavior or modulate his approach. Which is why improving economic fortunes may not lift the president or his party.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call