Trump’s approval rating is 43% in two new surveys by NBC/Wall Street Journal and Fox News. Despite low unemployment and record stock market highs, his approval has averaged in the low 40s steadily through his presidency.
Set against recent history, that’s a dangerous place to be. On the eve of their successful re-elections, Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all had approval ratings in positive territory, according to Gallup tracking polls. Worse yet, Trump’s inflammatory and divisive style of politics has cemented a high negative rating and left him little room to grow.
Despite all that, Trump could very well win in November 2020. He’s raising more money than any Democrat and has the backing of a Republican Party apparatus that is working to define his foes as radical and out of touch. His geographic advantage is so strong he could lose the popular vote by 5 million and still win, according to one analysis.
The most important uncertainty for Trump is the economy. Since World War II, presidents have won a second term unless they oversaw a recession on the road to Election Day — George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 were felled by a downturn.
The US economy has sputtered in recent days, with some warning signs that could presage a recession, although economists surveyed by Bloomberg News say there’s only a 35% chance of it hitting within the next year. This month, confidence dipped among independents and Republicans, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, which showed the second-lowest overall level since before 2016 election.
Some Trump allies say the president’s position is unique.
“His approval rating is the most static statistic in politics. Nothing he does changes it. It’s a straight flat line," said Republican strategist Brad Todd. “His approval rating is driven by the fact that people view him as a brake pedal on normal politics, and they accept the things they don’t like about him."
Surveys suggest the growing economy has been an asset to Trump. The NBC/Journal poll found 49% approve of US adults approve of his handling of the economy — 5 points higher than his overall approval rating. An Economist/YouGov poll found that 47% approve of the way he’s handling the economy — 6 points higher than his overall approval rating.
Trump performs poorly on his stewardship of other policy issues, from health care and immigration to gun control and abortion, as well as questions of honesty and steadiness.
The Fox News poll found Trump losing to all four of his top Democratic rivals — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris — in head-to-head matchups by margins between 6 and 12 points.
Trump has shown signs of nervousness lately, angrily tweeting about the “CRAZY INVERTED YIELD CURVE!" — a reference to the 10-year Treasury bond rate dipping below the two-year Treasury bond rate for the first time in over a decade — and seeking to reassure Americans. He accused Democrats of “trying to ‘will’ the Economy to be bad for purposes of the 2020 Election. Very Selfish!"
“There is a danger that the one thing that’s holding him up starts to dissipate, and then he’s in deep trouble," said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who argued that Trump’s handling of issues like health care have ensured a high disapproval rating despite overseeing an economy that most presidents seeking re-election would envy.
Trippi said Trump is engaging in “a base strategy" aimed at pleasing his most passionate followers without trying to expand his coalition. “Will they hang with him if the economy falters? I don’t know."
Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews on Monday accused the president’s critics of “actively rooting for a recession solely to stop President Trump," but added that the US economy is “thriving" thanks to his policies and took aim at “Democrats’ big government socialism and job-killing policies."
US Steel plans to temporarily lay off hundreds of workers at its Great Lakes facility in Michigan, a key battleground state, Reuters reported, citing a filing the steelmaker made with the state.
On Sunday evening, the president complained about the surveys from his favorite cable network. “My worst polls have always been from Fox," he told reporters before departing from New Jersey for the White House. “There’s something going on at Fox, I’ll tell you right now. And I’m not happy with it."
But Trump needn’t worry too much about those numbers — general election polls this far out from Election Day are often poor predictors. In the summer before 2016, Hillary Clinton was dominating head-to-head polls against Trump. In the summer of 1979, Carter led Ronald Reagan in some polls before losing in a landslide.
The TV ad wars have barely begun, and the Democratic candidates have yet to face the kind of scrutiny that comes with being a presidential nominee.
Front-runner Biden has dipped into negative territory on favorable ratings in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll with 34% viewing him favorably and 38% viewing him unfavorably.
Two other top contenders are slightly underwater in terms of favorable ratings, but are less defined in the eyes of voters, leaving them room to rise or fall. Sanders is seen favorably by 37% and unfavorably by 40%, while Warren is seen favorably by 31% and unfavorably by 32%.
Trump, if 2016 is a guide, will run a nasty campaign, full of derisive caricature of his opponents. It helped him then, but it’s still to be seen whether that will help him as much now that he’s a known quantity.
Biden pollster and adviser John Anzalone said 2020 will be different because a President Trump was merely a hypothetical to voters then, whereas now he’s a “reality that haunts them."