Is this going to matter in the midterms? That’s a question I get more than any other. And, it’s one I get with increasing regularity. One day it's tariffs. The next it’s the Supreme Court. Or family separation at the border. Now, of course, it’s Helsinki.
The instinct of many in political media is to ask how voters are responding to each of these individual topics. Quick, let’s see how voters feel about NATO, or NAFTA, or Russian interference in the election. But, polling on the ‘issue’ or ‘controversy’ du jour fails to appreciate the fact that voters are busy living their lives and unlike pundits and TV panelists, don’t process in live-time. When asked a question involving a political figure or topic, especially one in which they don’t have an immediate or personal relationship, the opinions of most normal people (i.e., the people who don’t make a living thinking, talking and writing about politics) are colored by partisanship more than anything else.
For example, a survey done by PRRI and The Atlantic June 6-18 (i.e., pre Brussels/Helsinki), found that despite all the media attention given to Russian interference in 2016, "only 45 percent of survey respondents said outside influence from foreign governments is a major problem in American elections" and those opinions "ran along starkly partisan lines: 68 percent of Democrats versus only 22 percent of Republicans.”
Voters don’t live in issue silos. And, they don't vote that way either. An election is about the sum, not the individual parts. In 2018, voters will either want Congress to support Trump's turn-the-card-table-over style of governing, or they want to see Congress as a check on Trump. Right now, polls suggest more voters want Congress to provide a check on Trump.
It’s also important to remember that despite all the chaos and controversies surrounding this president, his overall approval/disapproval ratings have remained remarkably stable. The fivethirtyeight.com poll tracker shows that from January to July of this year, the president’s overall approval rating has fluctuated only four points — between 39 and 43 percent. In other words, opinions of Trump are set, if not in stone, at least in pretty firm concrete.
So, if that's the case, how do we know if/when perceptions of the president and the political environment are changing?
In this hyper-polarized time, with a hyper-polarizing president, the more important way to gauge voter sentiment is the intensity of the support/opposition to Trump. Do voters 'strongly' approve of the president or 'strongly' disapprove of the job he's doing. The more intense the 'strong' disapproval ratings and shallow the 'strong' approval of the president, the bigger the danger for Republicans this fall, as it portends a more fired up Democratic electorate and depressed GOP voter base. The smaller the gap between strong approve and strong disapprove, the better for Republicans, as it tempers the Democrats’ enthusiasm advantage.
But, it’s hard to measure changes in intensity from polling that comes out on a monthly or quarterly basis. Tracking on a monthly basis is kind of like watching a daily soap opera irregularly. Depending on the day you tuned in, you can conclude the show is boring (and uneventful), or that things have gone haywire (wait. THAT's the baby's father?!) But, if you watched the show every day, the overall arc and pattern of the program wouldn't seem so erratic and the storyline would make more sense.
As such, I like to look at SurveyMonkey polls. They poll Trump's job approval ratings, including 'strong' approve and disapprove, weekly. This means that we get to see how voter opinions of the president change week to week, not from month to month (or quarter to quarter). As such we get more consistent picture of the electorate that allows us to distinguish between a trend and an outlier.
Here's what I've found. The weekly SurveyMonkey polls have found a remarkable consistency in the president’s ‘strong’ approval and disapproval ratings. Since June, his strong approval rating has ranged between 26-28 percent, while his strong disapproval rating has shown a similar two-point range (40-42 percent). For the year, his strong approval and strong disapproval ratings have varied within a five-point range (23 to 28 percent strong approve; 40-45 strong disapprove).
When looking through the entirety of his presidency, Trump’s low point came in the last half of 2017. From June until December of 2017 his strong disapproval ratings were in the high 40 percent range (45-47 percent), and his strong approval ratings were in the 21-22 percent range. Here's what was happening during that time period. Trump fired James Comey in May. The health care bill died in the Senate in July. The Mooch came — and went — in late July. Charlottesville happened in August. The debate over the fate of the tax bill began in the fall. Tensions with North Korea were rising throughout.
Starting this spring, with the tax bill passed, the rhetoric and relationship with North Korea improved, and the game of White House staff musical chairs stopped, Trump’s numbers have been on the rise. Since April, Trump’s strong approval rating hasn’t dipped below 25 percent and his strong disapproval hasn’t broken 42 percent. This week, however, SurveyMonkey found that “the percentage who strongly approve declined from 28% to 26% reversing gains seen over the previous four weeks—while the number who strongly disapprove increased 3 points, from 41% to 44%, the highest since early March.”
The question now is this is the start of a trend or if it’s just a blip.
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