Trump's approval ratings are low but steady — possibly a good sign for his re-election chances

Key Points
  • Despite the many public displays of chaos and mismanagement in Washington, President Trump's approval rating has stubbornly refused to budge.
  • He remains exactly as overwhelmingly popular among Republicans as he was the first day of his presidency. Among the wider public, he remains unpopular — but not unusually so for a modern president.
  • Trump's approval rating is in line with those of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama at similar points in their presidencies. All three men were re-elected.
President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House, December 13, 2018.
Jim Young | Reuters

President Donald Trump enters 2019 facing threats to his presidency from all sides.

Special counsel Robert Mueller continues his probe, which has resulted in convictions of three former top Trump aides. The stock market, Trump's barometer for his own success, is suffering its worst performance since the 2008 financial crisis. A quarter of the government remains closed. And on Thursday, Democrats will take the House of Representatives.

But Trump's situation is not as dire as Democrats might hope, since his approval rating has stubbornly refused to budge.

He remains exactly as overwhelmingly popular among Republicans as he was the first day of his presidency. Among the wider public, Trump remains unpopular — but not dramatically more so than many other modern presidents.

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While his dismal approval rating was an outlier on the day he took office, it is now — while still in the low 40s — more or less within a typical range for a president at this point in a term. Other presidents started off popular only to quickly lose support as they quit campaigning and began to govern. Trump, whose leadership style is often criticized as erratic or unsteady, has remained steadily unpopular.

It has been 712 days since Trump became president. That many days into his own presidency, President Ronald Reagan had less public support than Trump does, according to a tracker from the political science website FiveThirtyEight.

President Barack Obama, whose first-day approval bested Trump's by more than 20 percentage points, was less than 5 percentage points more popular than Trump 712 days in. President Bill Clinton was less than 2 percentage points more popular.

Of course, voters sent all three former presidents back to the Oval Office for a second term.

What it means for 2020

Trump's approval rating has taken on new significance with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's announcement on Monday that she had taken a formal step toward a 2020 run for president and other Democrats expected to announce their candidacy soon. As the race gains steam, the president's low numbers, combined with a devastating defeat for the GOP in the 2018 midterms, are being trumpeted among Democrats as bellwethers for the presidential race.

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But unless it suddenly dips, the president's approval rating does not yet predict a defeat in 2020. Trump's approval, which has consistently been in the low 40s, amounts to a "political safe zone," according to Clifford Young, the leader of the global election and political polling risk practice at Ipsos.

Research from Young and Chris Jackson, a vice president at the polling outfit, has shown that an approval rating of 40 percent would make Trump the narrow favorite for re-election. The two studied more than 500 elections to reach that conclusion. In 2015, Young's model predicted a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential race despite polling that gave Democrat Hillary Clinton the edge.

To be sure, there are factors that could disrupt the president's approval. An economic downturn or an unpopular war could pose a threat unlike those the president has faced in his first two years in office. And presidents typically become less popular over time. In Iowa, a key electoral state, many Republican voters are telling pollsters they are willing to consider other Republicans.

But, like so many other aspects of his presidency, Trump's ratings have not hewed to historical norms. His approval has not been subject to the same deterioration effect as previous presidents.

'Calm down and enjoy the ride'

The most likely event that could jeopardize the president's approval numbers would be major negative economic news, said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political newsletter run by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Outside of economic news, "the best prediction would be that his approval would not change much," Kondik said. He pointed to the high level of partisanship in the electorate, which has served as a stabilizing force for the president's job approval even as those close to the president have been sent to prison or otherwise come under scrutiny.

But Kondik warned of the perilous approach the president was taking by focusing on support among his core voters, as opposed to staking out a more conciliatory approach that might win over a greater share of the electorate.

"You might say that the president certainly could get re-elected at an approval rating just over 40, but you also have to remember that his approval is in the low 40s despite a relative period of peace and prosperity," Kondik said.

If that relative peace and prosperity continues, however, Trump may not have much to worry about.

On New Year's Day, the president tweeted, in all capital letters, a happy new year to "everyone, including the haters and the fake news media."

"Just calm down and enjoy the ride, great things are happening for our country," Trump wrote.

It could be a bumpy year for the Trump administration, as legal troubles and new investigations loom. But if Trump's approval rating remains where it is, the president may have good reason to enjoy the ride.