FTA: Trump Approval Watch

From the Archives (FTA) is a category of posts previously published at The Latinone that still have some contemporary relevance. This FTA post was originally published on February 14, 2017.

I am not normally obsessed with presidential approval ratings. But since the election of Donald Trump as President I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between approval and governing. A popular President can use it as leverage, think post-9/11 George W. Bush. An unpopular President that is also incompetent, like our current Commander-in-Chief, may have trouble making policy even with a friendly Congress.

Trump was never popular to begin with. As it was said ad nauseam during the 2016 campaign both Trump and Hillary Clinton were the most unpopular candidates for President ever (since public opinion started tracking such a thing). It is not surprising that now that he’s President he has enjoyed no honeymoon period, just breaking even at 45% of both approval and disapproval in the first Gallup poll measuring his ratings. That is the lowest among the Presidents since 1969.

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Source: Gallup

Barack Obama, the only one of the last four President who won a majority of the vote had the approval of two-thirds of the country in his first Gallup appearance in 2009. His predecessor George W. Bush had the approval of nearly 60% of the country in 2001 even though (like Trump) he didn’t win the popular vote and (unlike Trump) his Electoral College victory was handed to him by the Supreme Court. Even Bill Clinton in 1993 had 58% approval following an election that he won by a plurality in a 3-way popular vote.

Before Trump the least popular presidents were Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George H.W. Bush in 1989. Both had 51% approval, 6 percentage points higher than Trump’s. Unlike Trump these two Presidents were not unpopular. In fact, none of the Presidents who preceded Trump in the Oval Office were unpopular.

earliest_approval
Source: Gallup

On average, all elected Presidents since Nixon had majority approval (58%). This ranged from 51% (Reagan and Bush I) to 67% (Obama). The average disapproval for Trump’s last 7 predecessors was 13%. Disapproval ranged from 5% (Nixon) to 25% (Bush II).

Trump’s first approval was 24% lower than the average recently sworn-in President. His disapproval was nearly 4 times higher than the average President since 1969 and nearly twice than George W. Bush, his most unpopular predecessor.

That leaves us with one additional number: those who did not have an opinion. Since 1969 nearly 3-in-10 Americans have not expressed an opinion of the new President. It makes sense, these polls are often taken in the first couple of weeks of an administration. Many people without strong opinions may want to wait and see how the new Commander-in-Chief does. In other words, the honeymoon period is a combination of positive opinion (approval), and willingness to cut some slack (no opinion). Even the last 3 Presidents in a more polarized environment have averaged 20% no opinion. Trump’s margin of error is much smaller. Only 10% of Americans did not have an opinion of him.

While approval ratings may rise and fall as Presidents get in trouble or out of it, as they accomplish goals or botch them, they start with a lot of leeway. Trump’s first numbers suggest that the vast majority of Americans have an opinion formed of him and what he’s going to do while in office.

As I write this Trump’s approval stands at 41% while his disapproval has increased to 53%. Right now 94% of the country has an opinion of his performance and it is not a good one. With executive orders, a friendly Congress, and his sheer incompetence he can still inflict a lot of damage. But he’s vulnerable even if he thinks the normal rules of engagement do not apply to him.

The Republican Party as of now stands united but as Trump increasingly becomes a liability we will witness more Republicans willing to break with him. Maybe not on their sweet tax cuts, but on issues that they don’t care much about but now feel bound to follow out fear of igniting the wrath of the President’s base. You will see the seams starting to fall apart in the Senate.

Senators have different electoral incentives since they have staggered terms. The first Republican Senators smelling blood on the Michael Flynn saga do not face election next year.

With a Democratic base energized in these first weeks and a bumbling President, expect a few more to start opposing in the longer term if the bad ratings continue. House Republicans will be harder to move, they have safe districts. Expect the few vulnerable ones to start considering their exit strategies.

Of course, it is possible for Trump to improve or have other external events to have people outside his base rallying in his favor. One potential event that has been suggested is a terrorist attack. George W. Bush initially became widely popular after the 9/11/2001 attacks. But Donald Trump is not George W. Bush. The younger Bush was more charismatic than our current President. Also, Bush used the attacks to try to unify the country (in his own way). Trump is incapable of doing that, he will use the opportunity to tweet an “I told you so” message.

I think it will be very hard for Trump to gain net positive approval ratings. He’s certainly way over his head, most people dislike him, and once Republicans see that he’s more a distraction than an asset, opposition will line up within the GOP. I think he is incapable of uniting the country in case of a tragedy or a war. The latter will more likely be seen with the suspicion that Bush II never received. Finally, I think that when his approval ratings among the voters of his own party (currently at 88%) start dropping and hopefully reach and surpass the Nixon line (50% was his Republican approval at his lowest point), he will get a primary challenge. While his policies matter, his approvals (or lack of) will be of great help in his downfall.

Edit 2/15/2017 to fix a mention of GWB approval rating.
FTA: Trump Approval Watch
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The Power Elite (Gossip Version)

One of the books I read in graduate school that has now become my go-to guide to understand what’s going on in American society is The Power Elite by sociologist C. Wright Mills.

Written in 1956, when conservatism was at one of its lowest points in the country’s history, The Power Elite stands out because it argues against the pluralistic thinking that was dominant at the time. Much of the political and social science of the era was very triumphant about American institutions and the ability of the common man to influence the nation’s politics. The country’s intelligentsia wasn’t the only ones with an overwhelming optimism in the country’s government.

A trend compiled by the Pew Research Center finds that in 1958 more than nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do what is right always or most of the time. This number includes 7-in-10 Democrats and Independents, and nearly 8-in-10 (79 percent) Republicans(!!!). It was also a time when income inequality was declining, in large part thanks to a postwar boom, a stronger labor movement, and government investment.

Mills is skeptical of the “kumbaya” narrative of power and money in the United States and says that there is a “power elite.” Not a conspiracy, but certain interlocking dominant classes in politics, business, the military, and arts, that reinforce themselves. THis power elite is not bound by ideology, but by a need to keep themselves at the top of American society. More than 60 years later, as the upper classes continue to horde opportunity and wealth, he looks like a visionary.

Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, lays out how the New York society, its “liberal” and mostly Democratic establishment abated the rise of Donald Trump by telling to story of Roy Cohn. Cohn was Trump’s mentor and better known for being the henchman of infamous U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.). The whole article reads like a gossipy version of The Power Elite, but nonetheless is a good window into how the powerful help themselves.
 

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/04/frank-rich-roy-cohn-the-original-donald-trump.html

Aside

Don’t Forget the Conservative Media Ecosystem

Jeet Heer writes that the Republican Party, not Donald Trump, is the real threat to American democracy. He argues that Trump is a symptom of a larger problem within the GOP. As he puts it:

But one institution has sorely failed in its constitutional duty to restrain the president. Time and again, the Republican-controlled Congress has ignored, defended, or outright enabled Trump’s authoritarian excesses.

I don’t think he’s wrong in this analysis but I think focusing solely on the GOP electeds’ indifference toward Trump’s authoritarian impulses minimizes the role conservative media plays in shaping the Party’s agenda. Heer mentions that the conservative media has “a profound influence” on the Party, but I think that’s an understatement.

Conservative media leaves in a conspiracy bubble. Its success depends on profits and those profits depend on viewers, listeners, and readers coming back. Reality is warped to the extent that even when the Republican Party controls the White House, both branches of Congress, and a majority of state governments, they still act as if they a persecuted minority. This warped reality has reached now ridiculous heights. Institutions conservatives normally love like the FBI and the CIA are under attack as part of a “deep state” conspiracy.

Trump is not just the de facto leader of the GOP; he’s also an avid consumer of conservative media. He is the poster boy of conservative news consumers: a white, male Boomer with too much time in his hands. Many of the members of his administration come from that media ecosystem. Understanding the current GOP means understanding how Fox News, Breitbart, and the like have monetized outrage to the extent that an organization at the peak of its political power believes it is the underdog.

Aside

The Nones are Causing the White Evangelical Aging Crisis

A recent piece in Newsweek about”President” Trump’s high approval levels with white evangelical Protestants highlights a problem in that community: they are not getting any younger. According to the article, current surveys find that white evangelicals are older than the general population. That makes sense since whites are generally older than the overall U.S. population. The article also states that young people are leaving over issues of same-sex marriage and the role of science. However, the story is more complex. Two big cohorts are leaving white evangelical churches, and they are quite different.

According to the 2014 Pew Landscape survey, 29 percent of white Americans are evangelical Protestants, and 10 percent are former evangelical Protestants. So, who is leaving? About 4-in-10 of those who have left the faith became nones, and about 4-in-10 joined mainline Protestant churches. This is an important fact left out of the Newsweek article. Many white people are not just leaving their own churches, they  are leaving religion altogether. But, do those joining mainline churches and those becoming nones have the same profile?

Let’s look first at their age profile. The 2014 Pew poll finds that 49 percent of whites are under the age of 50, similar to the 46 percent of evangelicals in that age cohort. However, 59 percent of former evangelicals joining mainline denominations are over 50 years old. By contrast, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the former white evangelicals who are now nones are under 50.

Indeed, among whites under 30 who have left evangelical denominations, those who became nones outnumber those who became mainline Protestants by nearly 3-to-1 (29 percent vs. 10 percent). The proportion of young former white evangelicals who are now non-religious is nearly double of actual white evangelicals under 30 (29 percent vs. 15 percent).

Are all these people leaving over the treatment of LGBTQ people and science? There’s some truth to that. Only 28 percent of white evangelicals in 2014 favored same-sex marriage. Among those who left and became mainline Protestants, just a plurality (48 percent) reported being in favor of same-sex marriage. Certainly more liberal, but not earth-shattering. Among the former white evangelical who became nones, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) favored same-sex marriage.

A similar pattern occurs with evolution. Nearly four-in-ten (38 percent) of white evangelicals think that “Humans and other living things have evolved over time.” A majority (56 percent) of those who joined mainline churches also agree that humans evolved, while 81 percent of those who became nones accept evolutionary theory.

While these numbers lend some credibility to the idea that people leaving evangelical congregations are doing so over their positions on LGBTQ rights or evolution, I think it is a political matter. If people were leaving their theologically conservative churches over these issues, they would be joining other congregations. Some of that is happening, since many people are switching to, presumably more liberal, mainline churches. That’s certainly the case with the older folk who are leaving evangelical congregations. But why the younger people are leaving organized religion altogheter?

I guess they are leaving more because of politics than theology, while the older folk are leaving due to theology. Why do I think this? Because the political differences between white evangelicals and former white evangelicals are wider among people who left religion than people who switched congregations.

Only 13 percent of white evangelicals and 15 percent of former white evangelicals who are now mainline Protestants identify as liberals. More than one-third (34 percent) of nones who were white evangelicals say they are liberals. While current evangelicals are more than twice as likely to say they are very conservative than former-now-mainline (15 percent vs. 6 percent), they are not very different in the proportion calling themselves just conservative.

The white evangelical “age problem” is mostly driven by young people leaving religion altogether, something that is not clear in the Newsweek piece. But the data shown here also hints at why white evangelical Protestants are so supportive of President Trump. That particular religious cohort is essentially pruning not just those who have stopped trusting religion altogether, but also people who seem to be appalled by anti-science and bigotry. This also means that “true believers” in the President will remain to identify as white evangelicals. The number to watch now is not just the overall white evangelical support for the President, but also if an increase in support is also mixed with a shrinking cohort.

If I have time, in a future post will be interesting to explore the educational profile of whites who remain Christian but are leaving their evangelical faith behind and how it compares to those remaining in the cohort.

The Nones are Causing the White Evangelical Aging Crisis