Donald Trump's very weird polling problem

There's an old political cliche that goes like this: Presidents get too much credit when the economy is going well --...

Posted: Aug 1, 2018 12:53 AM
Updated: Aug 1, 2018 12:53 AM

There's an old political cliche that goes like this: Presidents get too much credit when the economy is going well -- and too much blame when it's going poorly.

That cliche begets this political reality: When the economy is good and/or people believe the economy is good, a president is usually popular. And when the economy is weak (or perceived to be weak), a president is almost always struggling in the polls.

Which is why Donald Trump's current situation is super weird.

All current polling suggests that people not only feel good about the economy but give Trump credit for its success. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week, 50% of Americans approved of the job Trump was doing with the economy while only 34% disapproved. Those numbers on the economy were far better than how people said Trump was handling immigration (41% approve/51% disapprove) or the US relationship with Russia (26% approve/51% disapprove).

And yet, in that same NBC-WSJ poll, just 45% approved of Trump's performance as President overall while 52% disapproved.

That disconnect isn't a fluke. In the Real Clear Politics aggregate of polls, 50.4% approve of Trump's handling of the economy while 42.3% disapprove. The RCP average of Trump's overall job performance produces this: 43.3% approve, 52.9% disapprove.

Just how anomalous are high economic approval ratings -- and positive jobs numbers like 4.1% economic growth in the 2nd quarter of 2018 -- with middling overall job approval numbers, historically speaking?

The short answer is VERY.

Here's the long answer -- via CNN's Harry Enten -- who compared presidential job approval with approval of a president's handling of the economy at around the same time in their terms as Trump is now:

The only two presidents with significantly higher approval ratings on the economy as compared to their overall approval were Trump now and Bill Clinton in July 1998. The Clinton result is easily explained: He was in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So people liked how the economy was doing (and gave him credit for it) but were less willing to say they approved of him as heartily. The Trump example is less simple to understand.

My working theory is that voters don't like Trump personally but do like the state of the economy. So they are willing to give Trump credit for the economy specifically but when it comes to his overall job approval their feelings are much more determined by their feelings about Trump, the person. That's a trend that was apparent as far back as the 2016 election. Sixty-four percent of the electorate said that Trump was neither "honest" nor "trustworthy" but 1 in every 5 of those people voted for him, according to exit polling. Fully 63% said Trump didn't have the temperament to be president but, despite that, one in five in that bloc voted for him.

Regardless of the "why" of Trump's economy/overall approval disparity, it's clear that if he could simply disappear -- like, literally just stay in the White House and never tweet -- his overall approval numbers would likely improve. People seem to be reacting negatively to the full package of Trump, which crowds out their positive reaction to the job he is doing on the economy. If, he could take the focus off his tweets, the Russia investigation and the like -- and steer all of his rhetorical firepower onto the state of the economy, he and the Republican Party he leads would likely be in a much better place today.

Of course, that sort of message discipline isn't Trump. And if we've learned anything these last three years, it's that Trump is going to Trump. Always.

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