Why Trump’s approval numbers may be soft
Donald Trump’s approval rating holds steady at just above 42 percent, but it’s likely not that many will vote for him come election day. Here’s why.
Most of the damage Trump has heaped upon our country has rolled off the “Teflon President” because it was not life-threatening or reported mostly by left-leaning outlets. Not so with the 193,000 deaths, 6.45 million infections and economic devastation from Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19. His supporters can’t miss the wall-to-wall news coverage of the biggest health and economic problem facing Americans today.
They hear Trump admit he knowingly understated the virus’s threat to the country when he urged Americans to abandon caution while infections and deaths surged and the economy plummeted.
His supporters may not realize that Trump trashed the 70-year role of U.S. presidents in leading the fight against infectious diseases internationally and at home. They may not remember that former President Obama limited Ebola’s outbreak in the U.S. to 11 cases and two deaths by coordinating world leaders in arresting the virus at its source in West Africa and that Obama spearheaded testing for the H1N1 virus and provided 39 million masks, respirators and gloves to the states. And they may not be aware the Defense Production Act gives the president the responsibility to lead the fight against pandemics.
But they couldn’t miss the ubiquitous news coverage of Trump denying responsibility by telling governors that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk” and insisting that states procure their own supplies, all while governors and suffering small businesses pleaded for federal leadership.
The media constantly reminds all of us that many other countries more effectively contained the virus while it rages in the U.S. — a country with the world’s strongest economy and 4.2 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of COVID-19 cases and 22.2 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
Yet a steady 42 percent of Americans continue to approve of Trump, notwithstanding his mishandling COVID-19, reportedly disparaging Americans who died in foreign wars as “losers and suckers,” urging North Carolinians to vote twice, soliciting election help from Russia and Ukraine, 20,000 “untruths,” chronic lack of preparation, withdrawing from Syria and selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite bipartisan outrage, and a host of other questionable dealings. They’ve also remained steadfast through his broken promises to put America first, to denuclearize North Korea, to lower health care costs and to broaden its coverage.
Other Americans and people throughout the world ask, why do these people stick with Trump? Behavioral science suggests some answers.
Social psychologists note that the longer and more fiercely we need to defend our decisions, the more difficult it is to admit we’re wrong. Trump supporters have strenuously defended their decision to vote for Trump — perhaps the most excoriated presidential candidate in American history — since the 2016 campaign. Today Trump’s rhetoric is piped through his bully pulpit — his tweets — that reach more Americans than subscribe to all U.S. news outlets combined, and through Trump-touting Fox News, number one in total viewers.
Although no individual vote will decide the next president, voters vote as if it will. The combination of the election’s enormous consequences and how long and vehemently Trump supporters have supported him has blurred the line between defending Trump and defending one’s own self-worth.
According to the cognitive dissonance theory, a conflict between what we do and what we believe creates anxiety we need to alleviate. The conflict between the rampant criticism of Trump and his supporters’ tenacious defense of him has created that anxiety. So they alleviate it by shunning information inconsistent with their support and embracing consistent but false rhetoric such as the “deep state,” “fake news,” the pandemic “hoax” and the QAnon conspiracy.
The sunk-cost fallacy states that the more energy and time we invest in a decision, the harder it is to abandon. Anyone who ever bought a stock and held on to it as it fell in the face of deteriorating financial measures has experienced this. Welcome, Trump supporters, to the eventual realization of loss.
Neuroscientists using brain imaging found that the reasoning areas of the brain shut down when confronted with information inconsistent with one’s beliefs and that the brain’s emotion circuits light up when supporting information is introduced.
Yet, with all this, there’s reason to believe that many who currently tell pollsters they approve of Trump won’t actually vote for him in November.
It wouldn’t be the first time voters misled pollsters. In 2016, some who had decided to vote for Trump appear to have told pollsters they were undecided. With polls predicting an overwhelming Trump loss and the media and Republican Never Trumpers deriding him, supporters didn’t want to side with a loser or confess support for a reviled candidate. Yet they voted for him.
The 2020 election presents a very different picture. Republicans from every state have openly abandoned Trump. Many others will follow suit, though they may not confess it to pollsters now.
In the privacy of the voting booth or at home when voting by mail-in ballot, no one will see or need to know how a Trump supporter votes. There, the COVID-19 catastrophe, Trump’s habitual lying, and his multiple failures and transgressions will likely outweigh the need to defend him. And just as Americans voted for Trump in 2016 after telling pollsters they wouldn’t, voters may very well vote for Joe Biden in 2020 after telling pollsters they’d vote for Trump.
Neil Baron advised the Securities and Exchange Commission and congressional staff on rating agency reform. He represented Standard & Poor’s from 1968 to 1989 and was vice chairman and general counsel of Fitch Ratings from 1989 to 1998. He also served on the board of Assured Guaranty for a decade.
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