12 July 2018

Trump’s ratings aren’t great – but they could be far worse


With President Trump arriving on our shores today, what better time to take stock of what the public on both sides of the Atlantic really think of this one-man controversy generator?

For those more familiar with parliamentary systems, the main political barometers away from election time tend to be rather different in the United States. With nothing directly comparable to the Leader of the Opposition, the question is not about a hypothetical election tomorrow. Such generic questions tend not to be particularly informative.

Instead, US pollsters ask people whether they approve or disapprove of how the President is handing his job. Leader ratings can also be highly informative even in a parliamentary system, but that’s a story for another time.

Recent polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight put Trump’s approval on 42 per cent. That’s slightly higher than the high thirties where it sat during the latter half of 2017.

It’s also only slightly lower than the ratings that some previous presidents enjoyed at the same stage of their first term. Some were faring much better at that point, particularly the two Presidents Bush – George H.W. 63 per cent approval and George W. (in the wake of
9/11) 68 per cent.  However Presidents Obama, Clinton and Reagan, each of whom were comfortably re-elected, had approval ratings of just 44 to 46.5 per cent at this stage.

The current picture contrasts to last summer when Trump’s approval numbers, below 40 per cent, were exceptionally poor. Most previous presidents had been well above 40 per cent at that point, including Obama on 57 and George W. Bush on 51. Two things have happened since then.

As mentioned already, Trump’s numbers have improved in absolute terms. But they have improved even further relative to his predecessors at the equivalent point in time. Most presidents begin with something of a honeymoon period, before seeing their numbers decline.

Trump’s numbers started off at similar levels to where they are currently, but their stability, rather than dropping off in the normal way, means they are now in the ballpark of what might typically be expected. They are still at the low end of the historical range, but no longer look dramatically out of line. Put another way, if they had followed the trend that presidential ratings normally follow, they would be considerably worse.

As always, patterns are not absolute, but are helpful in putting current data points into context. How, then, should we interpret this? There are a few things to consider. On the one hand, the US economy is doing fairly well, with growth and job creation close to their historical averages. Whether or not that’s a caveat depends on the context.

If you’re interested in approval numbers as a predictor of future election results, then the economy is part and parcel of that, unless you expect it to slow dramatically. But if you’re treating them as a popularity contest, then it becomes noteworthy that Trump’s numbers are lacklustre despite the economy doing alright.

On the other hand, the extreme polarisation along party lines, with presidents less likely than in the past to have the approval of the other party’s voters, may have made historical comparisons of job approval numbers unflattering to the incumbent and his more recent predecessors.

The fact that Trump’s ratings are not “off-the-chart” bad, but that the narrative (at least outside the US) hasn’t yet caught up with the numbers, is a good example of the bias sometimes found in the way polls are reported.

This needn’t be bias in the partisan or ideological sense. It could simply be that historically extreme numbers are more likely to be deemed newsworthy than numbers that aren’t. As I like to say, the truth isn’t always exciting, and this may be one of those cases.

But what about views of Trump in the UK? The first thing to remember is that, as a general rule, world leaders tend to be more popular abroad than in their own country. However this is clearly not the case at the moment. A multi-country study by Gallup put Trump’s approval rating in the UK at 33 per cent.

Other polling in the UK, with a variety of question wordings, has typically also found about two-thirds expressing a negative opinion on the commander-in-chief. Sixty-seven per cent told YouGov he was a “poor” or “terrible” president, while 63 per cent in an ICM poll agreed
that he “makes the world a more dangerous place”.

But when it comes to Trump’s visit to the UK, views are more nuanced. Polling has tended to show Brits fairly evenly divided on whether or not the president should have a state visit, with many of those who dislike or disapprove of him feeling that it is worthwhile for diplomatic or other reasons.

As such, it will be interesting to see whether UK views on Trump and his visit change after the fact. Americans, on the other hand, look set to be divided for some time yet.

Matt Singh is founder of Number Cruncher Analytics