Donald Trump’s Approval Rating in Context

Just how bad is Donald Trump’s approval rating, historically speaking?

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It has already been pointed out that the current President rose to majority disapproval far more quickly than any other president, but I wanted to take a closer look at how his current standing compares to the record of other Presidents. Clearly, it is very early (actually, that’s sort of the point) and far too early to draw any serious conclusions, but still, it’s an interesting question from a historical perspective.

At the top of this post is the Gallup net-approval rating – that’s percent approval minus percent disapproval – for every President going back to Harry S. Truman, the first for whom there’s early-Administration polling. Trump’s net-approval is -10 today, up slightly from -12 yesterday. Clearly, this is low. The average rating for presidents during this period is +49, ranging from +23 for Bill Clinton to +75 for a post-JFK assassination Lyndon Johnson (though Truman, who was busy wrapping up a World War, scored +84 in his first poll on day 48).

In fact, three presidents – Eisenhower, Ford and Kennedy – never scored as low as Trump is now, for the entirety of their time in the White House. However, two of them did not even serve four years in office, restricting their ability to disappoint the country.

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For the others, it took much longer to reach this far into the presidential doldrums. The closest second is Bill Clinton, who reached -13 in a poll conducted during June of his first term. The earliest stages of Clinton’s presidency saw the Travelgate controversy draped over an already scandal-clad President, who won election with only 43% of the vote. For other presidents it took much longer: next in line was Truman, who dropped below -12 a full year and a half into his tenure. On the other end of the scale are George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, both of whom wouldn’t fall below Trump’s current level until their second terms.

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The Bush and Nixon examples reintroduce some nuance into our assessment of Trump’s current standing. George W. Bush took longer to hit this level than any other modern president, but ended his time at the White House with lower ratings than any other resident who lasted a full two terms. Bill Clinton, though he got off to a uniquely rough start, ended up with some of the highest approval ratings of any two-termer. This point is captured compellingly in a recent piece by Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, who recounts Ronald Reagan’s answer to public protest, international disorder and low approval ratings: decisive re-election.

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All the same, it’s hard to ignore how Trump in not even three weeks has reached depths that usually inspire media folklore of presidencies trawling across the ocean floor, searching for direction. Here are some comparable periods for recent Presidents, who faced some of the same partisan pressures that likely delimit both the floor and the ceiling of the modern-day approval rating:

Bill Clinton Paula Jones suit, Whitewater hearings, death of Hillarycare Sep. 1994 -10
George W. Bush  Hurricane Katrina and Aftermath Sep. 2005 -9
Barack Obama Debt-ceiling crisis, S&P downgrade Aug. 2011 -11
Donald Trump Two weeks as President Feb. 2017 -10

In addition, were Trump’s ratings to remain in their current territory for the next 20-odd months, history suggests his party would be headed for a solid rebuke at the Midterm elections. Every president with an approval rating under 55% has lost House seats in the midterms, and losses for presidents under 50% range from 11 seats (1978) to 63 (2010). Notably, Democrats need to gain only 24 seats to retake control of the House of Representatives, and the only circumstance where a president lost fewer than that with comparable ratings was 2014, when an already diminished Democratic Party lost 13 seats six years into Obama’s presidency. The average seat loss for a president in the 39% to 46% approval range is 39. Trump is at 43%.

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Of course, nothing about Donald Trump or his campaign for president has fit into the template of the average President. And in 2016, House Democrats lost double the number of districts won by Hillary Clinton than Republicans who lost Trump districts, and it’s possible they will repeat the performance in 2018. But a repeat performance would require Trump to break dramatically with history, once again.

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Donald Trump’s Approval Rating in Context

Trump’s Muslim ban and public opinion

Date Pollster Question Response options Pro-ban (%) Anti-ban (%)
Jan. 30-31 PPP Do you support or oppose Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees and citizens of certain countries from entering the United States? Support-Oppose 47 49
Jan. 31-Feb. 1 YouGov President Trump recently signed an executive order banning travel for people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia – for 90 days, and suspending the admission of refugees for 120 days. Do you approve or disapprove of this ban? Approve-Disapprove-Not sure 48 44
Jan. 30-31 Ipsos Do you agree or disagree with the Executive Order that President Trump signed blocking refugees and banning people from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S.? Agree-Disagree-Don’t know 49 41

Issue polling is a dicey business, for a few reasons.

For one, policies by definition deliver some kind of public “good” to some constituency, at least superficially. Focus on that, and you can probably get a positive response. At the same time, there are always trade-offs, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to capture those trade-offs in a meaningful way (and sometimes pollsters don’t even try). And because most voters don’t care about The Good Or Maybe Bad Policy nearly as much as you do, they’re going to defer to you on the pros and cons. Second, there’s an important distinction between testing a policy as a political win for a party or politician and testing it as a piece of independent political communication that is often lost. Testing one side of that divide or the other – or some combination – is appropriate in different contexts, but they illustrate very different things.

For some of these reasons, I was worried about polling on the #MuslimBan, which involves components that have polled well before, but is already pretty clearly tied to a popularity-challenged president. Anyway, it looks like I was wrong!

Polling on the policy is, so far, pretty consistent, despite some variation in question and response options. The public is fairly evenly divided, with supporters slightly outnumbering opponents in two out of three polls and the third essentially evenly split. All of the polls mention Donald Trump by name, which I think is correct, because abstracting Trump out of this is beside the point. There is a possibility that omitting detail about the countries involved is responsible for wider opposition in PPP’s case, but that could have other explanations, up to and including regular sampling error. At this stage it’s not an especially popular policy or an especially unpopular one (all the more reason to focus on the fact that it’s an immoral and ineffective one).

Update:

Below is a just-published Gallup poll, which paints a much more negative picture of public opinion and the ban. It’s not obvious to me what’s going on here, but it does introduce the possibility of a modal effect – perhaps people are eager to tell phone interviewers they dislike the ban, but more non-committal when being polled online. As noted yesterday, Gallup has also been more negative for Trump on regular job approval.

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Trump’s Muslim ban and public opinion

The Era of Strong Feelings

This week’s installment of the weekly Economist/YouGov Poll was published today, adding another approval rating to the mix – 43% approve to 44% disapprove. Disapprove rose by 9 points from last week, while disapproval also rose by 2. It’s still very early and there is much going on, so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about any individual poll at this point. However, in making sense of the relatively low disapproval number (when compared to Obama, who was in mid- to high-50s for years) and the loud, proud protests breaking out across the country, the “Strongly disapprove” number does stand out.

Roughly a third (33%) of the country already “strongly” disapproves of Donald Trump, making up, you might say, the floor of anti-Trump sentiment. Obama didn’t reach this level of passionate opposition until December 2009, following months of backlash and Tea Party protests over TARP, taxes and the impending “government takeover” of healthcare. Afterwards, those numbers never really went below that level again.

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What this means for Trump’s presidency is uncertain. Obama, of course, lost out in the midterms in 2010, but went on to a convincing reelection in 2013. But when it comes to the formation of a sizable, hardened opposition, Trump has received no honeymoon.

Sidebar: There’s now quite  a spread on Trump: Politico/Morning Consult have the approve-disapprove split at 49-41 (albeit pre-ban) and Gallup have 52-43. One wonders about a modal effect – are respondents online more willing to be honest about positive feelings towards Trump? – but YouGov doesn’t really confirm that. However, one of the under-appreciated differences between the online and phone “modes” is simply the options provided; YouGov and Morning Consult display a “don’t know” option while Gallup’s is volunteered. All three show undecideds in decline, but one additional possibility for Gallup’s higher disapproval number is people who haven’t really formed an opinion are reverting to their general feelings about Trump, even independent of his presidential performance.

The Era of Strong Feelings

A different way of looking at Gallup’s job approval numbers

During the  2016 campaign, I explored a new way of aggregating – or maybe the right word is disaggregating – horse race polls for the presidential race. One of the rationales was that I wanted to keep an eye on the fieldwork dates (when the interviews for a poll are conducted) for the new polls when major campaign events were used to confirm or deny a major swing in the race.

I thought a similar strategy might actually be useful for looking at Gallup’s tracking data for Donald Trump’s prediential job approval. They do a 3-day rolling average with around 500 interviews conducted daily, and they represent it in the traditional way with a new datapoint for every average.

That’s fine, but in order to capture the actual days included in each average I made the graphic below. This format is also fairly easy to annotate with major events. As you can see, today’s is the first daily average to include only interviews conducted after the immigration executive orders (aka the #MuslimBan) announced last Friday.

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His net approval is at -8, or 43% approve to 51% disapprove. Tired of winning yet?

A different way of looking at Gallup’s job approval numbers

A closer look at Muslim and Christian refugees who went to the United States

President Donald Trump’s disastrous executive order on the admission of refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East – specifically seven countries in the region – has obviously been the source of a lot of consternation. Much of the disagreement hinges on assumptions about the composition of the refugee population itself, and how it reflects on the moral or policy merits of the directive, so that population is worth a closer look.

One big sticking point has been whether this is truly the “Muslim Ban” that Democrats, Rudy Giuliani and a former top advisor of Trump’s National Security Advisor would have it be. “But most Muslims live outside the terror-stricken countries Trump is targeting” seems to be the counterargument (though most of these folks are the same ones who have spent years insisting the terrorism in the region be described as Islamic so they are maybe not the best messengers).

Anyway – it’s true! Most Muslims do not live in the Middle East, or Trump’s 7 countries (Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Syria). But on the key question of refugees, I have already argued it is a Muslim ban in all but name. Just look at the numbers: in 2016, 82% of the Muslim refugees admitted into the United States came from the 7.

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Put another way, 84% of the refugees from those 7 countries are in fact Muslim (Note: all of this refugee data comes via the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center database).  The more committed contrarians have pointed to a pause in refugee admissions initiated by the Obama administration in 2011 (though it wasn’t publicly announced or even reported until 2013) as a Gotcha! for anyone unwilling to call that a Muslim ban too. Not to get too much into the policy details, it’s a silly argument in solely numeric terms: compared to the more than 80% of the Muslim refugee population covered by Trump’s ban, Obama’s would have only affected about 1 in 5 Muslim refugees if it held throughout 2016. Not a happy situation whatsoever for those left out – but not remotely comparable in scale.

That brings us to another important issue. The exception for religious minorities – excluding the persecuted and displaced Muslim communities that make up a majority of refugees in the region – is, by Trump’s own admission, aimed at giving preferential treatment to Christians over Muslims. A few commentators on the right will insist the text itself does not mention Christianity – just persecuted religious minorities –so this is not about Christians, but a more general belief (even including that first group) seems to be that this fixes some fundamental problem with the previous administration’s policy on Christian refugee applicants in the Middle East. Namely, that not only did Obama not admit enough Christian refugees from the region, but that it was an intentional policy showing preferential treatment for Muslims over Christians.

This latter view is exemplified in a recent post by a generally Trump-skeptic conservative commentator, Erick Erickson:

[F]or the last number of years, the press has downplayed that the Obama Administration bent over backward to allow in Muslim refugees from war-torn areas while limiting the immigration of Christians and Yazidi from the same area.

However, this is just one example of a whole mythology that developed about Barack Obama’s refugee policy regarding Christians during his second term. Mind you, I have not seen anyone present a shred of evidence that this was ever a deliberate policy by the administration, no stated directive, not even a stray Wikileak!

In fact, the core argument seems to be simply that Obama admitted too few Christians, specifically in Syria, from 2015-2016. So let’s look at the data. According to the US State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, Obama admitted 125 Christian refugees from Syria in the calendar year of 2015. This is more than double the widely cited number, 56. I am not sure why. One obvious answer is that estimate was through September, and my number is through December. It’s possible my definition of Christianity is also broader – my count includes 52 unspecified Syrian “Christians”, 32 Catholics, 32 Orthodox, 5 Protestants and 4 Jehovah’s Witnesses. But in a sense the distinction is unimportant, because the core point is that too few Syrian Christians are admitted relative to their share of the overall population. Estimates for the Syrian Christian vary between 5% (Pew Research) and 10% (the BBC), but whether you take 56 or 125 as the number, their share of the US Syrian refugee population is much lower, less than 1% in either case.

This is the core of the argument that Obama is deliberately discriminating against Christians. Now, some have argued this is even true “in effect” because, like the rest of the world, the U.S. resettles refugees who have registered with the U.N. refugee program, and Christian refugees are, according to one think tank, afraid to go to the U.N. I should say I am no expert on refugee resettlement policy, Syria or the U.N., but my first thought at pondering this issue was, well, if there was some systematic bias against U.N. camps among Christians in the region – or else a bias within the Obama administration – would it not appear outside of Syria, too?

To look at this I filtered the refugee data down to all Middle Eastern and North African (“MENA”) nationalities along with Somalia, and then broke down the numbers by religion. In terms of raw numbers, the Obama administration actually admitted far more Christian refugees on an average, yearly basis than the Bush administration: 6,700/year versus 4,000/y) He also took in larger numbers of Muslims, by a factor of more than two from (9,600/y under Bush to 21,100 under Obama).

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In percentage terms, it is true that there has been some decline in the share of refugees that are Christian – from 26% during the Bush years (excluding 2001, for which there’s no data) to 24% under Obama.

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However, looking at both charts it seems clear there is a waxing and waning under both presidents, which may well simply come down to major world events that drive people out of certain areas with certain demographic and religious leanings. You can see that since the Arab Spring broke out, the U.S. has taken in growing numbers of Muslims, without a doubt.  What you don’t see is the disproportionately small number of Christian refugees cited in Syria; looking specifically at neighboring Iraq, for example, Christians made up 17% of refugees in 2015. The Syria discrepancy does seem unusual, and the international community should investigate why Syrian Christians seem to be staying away from U.N. camps (the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said many Syrian Christians have gone instead to Lebanon). But to jump argue Obama, himself a Christian and an advocate of expanding the country’s refugee policy, practiced “de facto discrimination” against Christians and gave preferential treatment to Muslims – well, I’ll just stop and say I don’t see how that’s based on evidence.

Note: an earlier version had “Christian” mislabelled in key for the third graphic. Fixed.

A closer look at Muslim and Christian refugees who went to the United States