Aaron Rossiter | 1/24/17 | 1:17 PM
Donald Trump won the election on November 8th with a favorability rating of about 42%. Today, when combining an equal number of polls including all adults and those including only voters, he has an average favorable rating of 46.0%. The headlines in much of the mainstream media identify Trump as having the lowest favorable rating of any incoming president in history. I will explain why this does not matter for Trump's reelection.
Pundits Wrongly Treat Favorability Like an Ironclad Indicator
Favorability ratings represent a very broad and shallow measure of a deeply complicated political reality. These particular polls really do not tell us much about a president's real level of support and likelihood of getting reelected and that is doubly true for Donald Trump.
While Trump has relatively low ratings as compared to other presidents, favorable ratings have been inconsistently applied to only thirteen of the forty-five presidents, or 29% of them. That percentage does not inspire confidence in the measure. If we are going to look at history as a guide we need to do more than just look at a list of favorability numbers of less than a third of the presidents.
Other presidents who won close and contentious elections would have had low inaugural approval ratings if they were taken, but some of those presidents won reelection and became our greatest presidents. Jefferson and Lincoln come to mind. Favorability ratings didn't exist then so we have very limited data to judge the usefulness of favorability ratings.
Do the elections of presidents from the pre-modern era tell us anything? Sure, to the extent that this history helps to shape expectations for presidents, they are relevant. They are at least as relevant as the favorability rating of Franklin Roosevelt, a president who governed a country that only faintly resembles our modern nation.
Measuring the current president against presidents from pre-modern history, however, has obvious limitations as a barometer of whether the current president will win reelection. In much the same way, looking at favorability ratings of past presidents is fraught with problematic assumptions when comparing them to Trump's favorables in assessing re-electability.
Examining the Limitations of Favorability Ratings in General
As Nate Cohn writes about in the New York Times, most of the pollsters are polling all adults rather than just voters when it comes to approval or favorability. As I have written about numerous times, it does not make sense to poll all adults in a political poll. Political polls by definition should only measure the opinions of voters.
By definition, a Republican will always have a lower approval rating if all adults are measured because non-voters favor Democrats to Republicans when polled. Democrats consequently will always have a higher approval rating than their real approval rating when non-voters are included. There is no doubt that pollsters know this.
Looking at how a pollster measures approval is a good way of determining if a pollster wants to favor Democrats. You will find that most do. We should conclude based on this that Trump's real approval is higher than reflected in the surveys of all adults and Obama's is lower. One can fairly consider this a universally applicable rule that applies inversely to Republicans and Democrats.
Cohn acknowledges that Trump's actual approval rating may be closer to 46% for the preceding reason, incidentally where I show it at. Cohn then asks if Trump has an appeal to voters that traditional polling misses. He points as evidence for this hidden appeal to consistently higher approval for his policies and optimism about the next four years as compared to his personal approval ratings.
I think it's clear that poll respondents are disapproving of Trump personally while simultaneously viewing his policies and impact on the country more positively. We see this with Obama just in reverse, where his approval is very high, between 55 and 60%, but the person promising to continue his policies could not muster 50% of voter support or enough electoral votes to win.
The ubiquity of any president's image and personality represents an explanation for the bifurcated view, personal verses policy, of a president within one person's mind. Now that everyone carries a constantly current high resolution screen media device in their pockets, the president is always a click away. We develop what feels like a personal relationship with presidents that transcends policy. We carry a strong opinion of the person that often will diverge from our opinion on policy and likely impact on the country. For Trump, this split makes him look less popular than his policies and expected impact. For Obama it's the reverse.
The approval rating disconnect from electoral results is glaring, profound and undeniable. Trump did not need a 50% approval rating to win and he defeated Obama's handpicked successor while Obama had a 55-60% approval rating. Polling adults instead of voters and the transcendence of the personal above policy both help explain this, but with Trump there is yet another factor to consider.
Favorability is less useful for Trump than even other Presidents
The first two reasons for the disconnect, namely transcendence of the personal to policy in our hyper-media age and polling all adults, apply to all presidents and presidential candidates. There is a third reason that Trump can dismiss approval ratings as a measure of his likelihood for reelection, one that applies uniquely to him.
Mainstream journalists and pundits fail to understand this approval rating disconnect with respect to Trump for the same reason they mistakenly panned Trump's inaugural speech as a failure. These elites simply refuse to recognize the political power of Trump's appeal to a typically non-voting segment of the electorate and also to a portion of the old Democratic coalition.
They called the speech dark because of his use of the word "carnage" in describing the devastation wrought by constant inner city social turmoil in Democratic governed cities. The called speech "Hitlerian" because of his use of the phrase "America first."
Both of these elements of the speech, however, strongly appeal to this typically non-voting or Democratic voting portion of the electorate. First, some Democrats see the profound failure of Democratic governance in most big cities and find Trump's focus on those failures refreshing. Second, only liberal elites recall the nearly century old "America First" Nazi-friendly movement when Trump uses the phrase.
That phrase is so generic that to assign specific racist motives for its use, especially when those motives have been repeatedly condemned by Trump and the phrase so clearly describes Trump's economic vision, amounts to deeply un-serious analysis bordering on propaganda.
These unlikely Republican voters like the idea of putting our nation first and do not see racist motives in using the phrase. As such, they vote for Trump. Trump's speech will likely redound to Trump's benefit politically for these reasons.
Trump Defies the Two-Party System, Rendering Favorability Less Useful
Traditional pollsters in the US are captivated by the two-party view of the political world in much the same way as our government and media institutions. One can usually label each media organization as pro-Republican or pro-Democrat with a high degree of credibility. Our Congress is bitterly divided into two parties. Our high Court reflects the same division. In every case, our institutions are split down the middle into two teams.
Our pollsters look at polling with the assumption that the people are divided into red and blue teams who will ultimately come down on their own team's side. The 50% threshold, therefore, represents the gold standard for presidential approval. In a bifurcated system the guy with half the votes wins in every case. With 50% approval the electoral success in midterm and the reelect seems likely. Without a 50% approval the other team will absorb all dissent and by default will hit the magical 50% number.
But unfortunately for the Democrats and the media Trump doesn't need a 50% approval rating to win or really anything near it. About one-fifth to one-third of the Republican coalition views Trump negatively for personal reasons but supported him in the election. The reluctant Trump voter represents part of the reason he has an approval rating well under 50% but still won the presidency. There are others who vote for him but disapprove of him personally in polling. Let's look more closely at that.
The Trump Coalition Defies the 50% Favorability Threshold
The 42 to 46% who approve of Trump represents the portion of the Republican coalition that openly supports him plus some voters who usually do not vote and some who usually vote for Democrats. His wins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan demonstrate that Trump's coalition includes some Democrats and some people who normally do not vote.
Trump won these states despite an unprecedented avalanche of negative attention from nearly all segments of our popular culture, academic and media establishments. The American elite establishment spoke in virtual unanimity in opposition to Trump, but despite this, Trump poached three of the Democrat's biggest electoral pillars, states they cannot win without.
He achieved this masterstroke of political strategy by seizing this non-traditional portion of the vote, a portion composed of infrequent or typical non-voters and a portion of Democrats. This non-voting portion will often not show up in approval ratings because they are unlikely to answer pollsters. The Democrats who vote for Trump are likely to be shy about it, or unwilling to admit that they favor him.
On top of that, you have Republicans who will vote for him but who disapprove of him because they dislike that alternative even more and they are disgusted with elite culture. All three of these factors add up to a lower approval rating than a Republican would normally experience, but an approval rating that really doesn't accurately indicate Trump's current electoral strength.
He doesn't need a 50% approval rating to win. He does need to maintain his populist appeal to voters who typically do not vote and some populist-leaning Democrats while preserving his hold on most of the GOP vote. He achieves these political goals by continuing to buck the system and boldly fighting the arrogant elites. His harsh and blustery condemnation of elites, in other words, represents Trump's greatest political strength while at the same time pushing down his personal approval or favorability numbers.
It is this component of Trump's political winning formula that leaves the elites flummoxed. The most visible elites in our nation have brazenly opposed Trump at every point in his political life. With each new day comes a new example of a celebrity or journalist loudly denouncing Trump, and often his supporters, in an effort to not only oppose but to mock Trump and his supporters. This elite seemingly holds no fear of backlash. It is this very blindness to the widespread backlash spawned by their smug disregard for regular America that will under gird Trump's reelection campaign.
Ultimately Trump's chance of winning will stand in inverse proportion to the disdain the American people have for the liberal media, cultural and political elite. The more celebrities, academia and high-profile political journalists show disdain for middle America, the more Trump will benefit.
The common thread running through all elements of Trump's coalition is fear and disgust for the coalition of Democrats and pop culture, academic and media establishment elites. While each group within Trump's coalition has motives to not answer pollsters or to voice an unfavorable view of Trump, they will ultimately come out and vote for him because of the existential threat to American freedom posed by the coalition of Democrats and elites. Trump has pieced together a coalition that much more likely to elect him privately but disapprove of him when asked in public.
Outline of the Two Dominant American Political Coalitions
Trump Coalition = Anti-Establishment (infrequent voters) + Some Democrats + Typical Republican voters. Probably about one-fifth to one-third of the Republicans are voting against the Obama coalition and voice disapproval of Trump in polling.
Anti-Trump Coalition = Pop-culture, media and academic elites and the low information voters they persuade through advocacy and propaganda + Left Wing of Democratic Party. *The low-information votes, or non-ideological Democrats, are mostly voting against the Trump coalition out of anger. Many of these low-information voters will disapprove of Trump in favorability polling but will not show up to vote.
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