September 7, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Two simple reasons why Trump’s approval rating never changes
The voters who constitute his floor and his ceiling.
The percentage of the electorate that approves of the president’s performance has barely budged since he took office. How can that be? That’s one of the thorny and infuriating questions of his presidency. It doesn’t matter what he does. It doesn’t matter what he does not do. Donald Trump’s job approval has remained steady, around 40 percent, give or take a few points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator. It might not be as thorny and infuriating, however, once you give it some thought. The reason nothing changes is because nothing else about Trump has changed either.
The most cynical explanation has the most common currency unfortunately. The president dominates every news cycle with lies, scandal and disinformation. The electorate has become both immune to controversy and inured to outrage. This is the most frequent view among members of the press corps, whose job it is to pay attention to all things Trump, which is the reason why many of them are so cynical. This is why Politico’s Jake Sherman wondered if anyone outside Washington cared about the Republican National Convention’s nationally televised violation of the Hatch Act.
It could be we’re all desensitized and nothing matters, or it could be that most of us have made up our minds, and little or nothing is going to change it.
Citizens do care. Sherman got shellacked for being such a nihilist. But Sherman had a point if the president’s job approval is any indication. Every government bureaucrat involved in staging a political convention on the White House lawn broke federal law many times over. Yet Trump’s job approval is steady. According to FiveThirtyEight (as of this writing), it’s 43.5 percent. A crime-in-progress didn’t change a damn thing.
Same goes for the pandemic. More than 193,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 as of this writing, per Worldometer. That’s about 64 times the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001. That’s about 48,250 times the death toll of Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. In fact, more Americans have died from the new coronavirus than from fighting in all foreign wars since the Korean War. We will probably reach 200,000 by Election Day, 250,000 by Inauguration Day, half a million by 2021’s midpoint. If the Trump administration had done a mediocre job, not a great job, of handling the pandemic, about 145,000 fewer Americans would be dead, according to analysis today by the Times’ David Leonhardt. Yet here we are. Negligent homicide isn’t enough to sink Trump below 40 percent.
Some have noted Trump is impervious to economics, too. They point to George W. Bush’s second term when his approval slid as the economy slid into a financial panic sparking the near decade-long Great Recession. Last week was the first time in 23 weeks in which weekly unemployment claims dropped below 1 million. About 22 million jobs were lost between February and April. Half haven’t come back, according to the Post. The pandemic is now spreading rapidly into 22 rural states in the south and midwest, places where Trump’s support is strongest. (Cases rose by 126 percent in South Dakota over two weeks, according to Reuters.) Meanwhile, parents are jammed between the need to send kids to school and the need to earn a living. Trump seems to be the exception to economic forces that didn’t spare the last Republican president.
Given the simplest explanations are usually the best, I offer two. One, Trump isn’t feeling what Bush felt, because he’s running for reelection. Many GOP partisans are willing to eat pretty much any outrage to prevent a Democrat from winning the White House. These voters, I contend, constitute the president’s floor. His approval rating won’t go any lower than it has been until he’s reelected. By then, perhaps we’ll know what Trump supporters really think of death-by-Covid. Until then, they’ll fake it.
The second explanation is simpler. It may be that most of the electorate made up its mind some time ago, perhaps as far back as Trump’s Inaugural Address, during which he made clear that he’d be a Republican, not an American, president. I’m guessing these voters decided who they’d vote for in 2020 by Feb. 1, 2017, or soon afterward. These voters, I contend, constitute the president’s ceiling. It doesn’t matter what he does. It doesn’t matter what he does not do. He will never attain majority approval.
It could be we’re all desensitized and nothing matters, or it could be that most of us have made up our minds, and little or nothing is going to change it. Indeed, as things get worse, our mindsets are only hardened. The more the president talks about “law and order,” the more we’re reminded of his lawlessness. The more he talks about violence, the more we’re reminded he’s inciting it. The more he brags about the economy, the more we’re reminded he’s ruined pretty much everything. Time will tell if I’m wrong, but this is better than the more complex, more nihilist perspectives.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.