Friday, January 20, 2017

Trump's low approval ratings and their consequences

Trump will be inaugurated today.  He will enter office with historically low approval ratings.  The latest from CNN/ORC put him at 40% approve/52% disapprove.

Now, remember that the polls were off for the election, so let's factor that in.  Nationwide, Trump polled about 3 points higher than the estimates, so let's add in about 3 points to his approval rating.  Wow!  A whole 43% approve of him once we factor in the anti-Trump bias of polling!

Yes, this is historically weird.  How weird?  Well, you can check out Gallup's Presidential Approval Center to compare this to past presidents going back to Truman.  There's no mystery here.  After an election, there is normally some validation.  Rather than that, we have had the intelligence agencies confirm that Russia was meddling to try to get Trump elected, and Trump, rather than trying to act as a unifying figure, has continued to act like Trump, getting into twitter feuds etc.

Now, so what?  Notice that Obama is pretty popular these days and not getting much done?  Why not?  His party doesn't control anything else.  Trump's party will control both chambers of Congress.  The question is, what will happen with respect to the policies about which he disagrees with his party?  Like trade?  That's where the approval ratings stuff gets tricky, and the political science literature disagrees.  So, here are some references, for the readers among you.

Basically, high approval ratings are nice if you can get them.  The question is, how nice?

Richard Neustadt, in Presidential Power, argues that public approval is a good resource, but not really the primary one.  "Presidential power is the power to persuade."  Public approval is one resource to do so, but not necessarily the best one.  Really, it is all about bargaining and reputation.  Of course, his model of presidential behavior was FDR, meaning pre-television, which brings us to...

Samuel Kernell's Going Public.  Kernell argues that presidents can get what they want by swaying the public, thereby forcing the hands of those wankers in Congress.  That only works if presidents are popular.  Trump won't be able to make that work with low approval ratings.  Of course, not everyone buys Kernell, which brings us to...

George Edwards' On Deaf Ears.  You know that annoying cliche, "wake up, sheeple!"?  It suggests that people are easily lead.  They aren't.  There are plenty of stupid animals that are hard to lead.  Do any of you have cats?  See my point?  Anyway, if it is futile to attempt to influence public opinion, then a president's popularity is of lesser value.

Lesser, but not zero value.

2018.  Here's what we know.  There are two modern midterm elections in which the president's party didn't get their asses handed to them.  1998 and 2002.  In 1998, the Republicans were dealing with, um, splashback from the impeachment.  Clinton's popularity had gone up, so the Democrats gained seats.  In 2002, Bush 43's popularity was still sky-high from his post-9/11 boost, so the Republicans gained seats.

See how this works?  The president's party loses seats in a midterm.  Unless something weird happens that makes the president unusually popular.  And Trump is unusually unpopular.  Even after we factor in the potential polling bias.  If that doesn't change, then 2018 becomes a big year for Democrats.

What does this mean?  It means for Republicans the same thing that 2009 meant for Democrats.  They have two years, and they better make the most of them.  As for Trump's heterodox positions on trade etc.?  I wouldn't put much in his ability to convince congressional Republicans, much less Democrats, to go along with them.  He can issue some executive orders, if he can stop tweeting for three seconds, but legislatively, no.  He just won't have the tools.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  When it comes to his heterodox positions, his relationship with Congress is much like that of... Jimmy Carter.


  1. If the president is extremely popular OR opposition party in Congress is extremely unpopular (my preferred explanation for 1998)

    1. Given the inverse empirical relationship, separating them is hard. One went up as the other went down.

      I swear, I didn't even think about that as I typed it.