On Feb. 6, barely two weeks into his presidency, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE tweeted, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.”
Nearly 10 months later, the negative polls — the president’s ‘’fake news” charge notwithstanding — have kept coming. The most recent, the Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll, shows Trump at a new low of 41 percent. Most other reputable polls have his job approval rating several points lower.
Barring a dramatic event like 9/11, which temporarily sent President George W. Bush’s approval rating soaring from 50 percent to 90 percent, nearly every president’s standing with the public declines as the first year unfolds.
When expectations raised during the campaign cannot all be met — some because they are excessive and others because they are contradictory — people become disappointed.
As a former Gerald Ford aide lamented, “Each [presidential decision] is bound to hurt somebody. ... He will satisfy one group but anger three others.” Consequently, presidents experience what political scientists Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley have labeled a “decay curve,” a decline in public approval that normally begins about halfway through the first year of the term and lasts well into the third year.
But historically that decline has begun only after a six-month or longer “honeymoon” with the public, which new presidents often are able to translate into major legislative victories on Capitol Hill.
In the history of polling from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report To advance democracy, defend Taiwan and Ukraine Press: GOP freak show: Who's in charge? MORE, every president’s initial approval ratings exceeded his share of the popular vote in the election that brought him to power. The increase represented a surge of goodwill toward the new president even among those who wished that his opponent had been elected.
Trump’s brutalistic campaign assured that he would not have a honeymoon at all. His 46 percent level of support last November did not increase at all. Trump’s Gallup approval rating the week after his inauguration was 45 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a new president.
Monthly YouGov/Economist surveys showed no measurable increase from Election Day onward in the public’s assessment of Trump’s “qualifications to be president,” “temperament to be the president,” or “honesty and trustworthiness.”
Pressure from the Democratic grass roots (Trump’s approval rating among Democrats consistently has been less than 10 percent) further undermined any claim he might have made to being a unifying figure. As late as mid-September, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBen Affleck: Republicans 'want to dodge the consequences for their actions' through gerrymandering Republican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema MORE actually said she would not “rule it out” when asked if she would question “the legitimacy of this election if we learn that Russian interference is even deeper than we know now.”
But nothing degraded Trump’s ability to bring the country together more than his own words and actions as president, which have been designed to unify his base of supporters in opposition to his critics.
Trump’s approval rating at the six-month mark was 39 percent, the lowest of any newly elected president in the history of opinion polling, and his disapproval rating was 55 percent, the highest. They have remained within a point or two of those levels ever since, even as public regard for his handling of specific matters such as terrorism and health care has continued to decline. The average net approval rating — that is, the percent approving minus the percent disapproving — for the nine elected presidents from Eisenhower to Obama was +36 percent after six months. Trump’s was -16 percent.
Trump’s low standing with the American people is even more exceptional in light of the favorable economic conditions that have prevailed during his first year. Drawing on four decades of data, political analyst Harry Entman calculated that, based on the strength of the economy, Trump’s approval rating should be at least 10 points higher than it actually has been.
To be sure, as 2017 has worn on, most self-identified Republican voters have remained steadfast in their support — about 80 percent in all polls. But the number of people who professed to being Republicans has declined. At the start of the Trump presidency, 31 percent of voters surveyed in the Gallup poll identified with the GOP. By October, only 24 percent did.
A president’s job approval rating has no constitutional meaning, of course. What does have meaning is the effect the president’s standing has on voting in the first midterm election. Unless Trump is somehow able to turn things around, there’s a very good chance the Republicans will lose one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats next year.
Michael Nelson teaches political science at Rhodes College and is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. In January the University of Virginia Press will publish his latest book, “Trump’s First Year.”