Trump’s approval ratings don’t move much, but what do they really mean, anyway?

I hate to confess that I look at President Trump’s approval ratings almost every day. It’s an illness. But I have restrained myself from writing about them for several weeks because, basically, there’s no real movement. I sort of promised myself I would write about them only when they make a new high or a new low, and they haven’t done either, or, to be more precise, every time they have reached or almost reached the old record high or low, they turn around by a few points to the very bad (but not record bad) place they’ve been all along.

(A slight adjustment to that statement. Trump has certainly not set a record for worst approval ratings by a president. But he has had the worst ratings of any president this early in a term. On the other hand, the fact that the numbers keep reverting to the previous bad-but-not-record-setting-bad norm leads me to wonder what, if anything, will cause a real breakout in either direction.)

I follow the ratings two ways. Here’s Gallup, which has the longest track record on these things and which updates its numbers all the time. They have shown his approval rating in the upper 30s and his disapproval in the upper 50s for several months now. The disapproval has touched 60 or even 61 a couple of times, but always, immediately, drops back into the upper 50s. His approval is the same in reverse. Trapped in a zone between 34 and 40 for months. I also look at a compendium/average of many approval ratings maintained by the Huffington Post, which you can see here, but they paint a similar picture. Ratings very bad, approval locked in the upper 30s, disapproval in the upper 50s.

It’s possible to convince oneself that, in general, very few Americans are changing their approval feelings in either direction, and he is well under water. But if that makes you think that he will be easy pickings for the next Democratic nominee (assuming that Trump is seeking a second term and the world still exists), you should note the paragraph below, from a Washington Post column that ran two months ago but that I just stumbled upon while thinking about approval ratings. It’s by David von Drehle and was headlined: “Trump’s continued attacks on Clinton tell us why the Democrats lost.”

The paragraph argued that:

Approval ratings are a mirage. They ask the public to compare the president to some theoretical standard or ideal. Do you approve or disapprove of the way the president is doing his job? Compared to what? Lost in a desert of ballot-box ineptitude, the Democrats are crawling toward the false oasis of Trump’s low ratings — as though blind to the fact that Trump was never popular to begin with, and still he won.

The point is that on Election Day you have a choice of the candidates on the ballot, even if you aren’t crazy about of any of them. 

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/13/2017 - 11:02 am.


    Trump ratings don’t change much? After less than a year in office, before the awfulness of this policies sinks in, you are presenting this as a permanent situation. Back up and get real – they haven’t changed as much as his opponents have hoped.

    Virtually all Democrats despise him, and most independents don’t approve. Those numbers have gone up slightly. With Republicans, quite a few who once strongly supported him now offer more conditionsl support. Republican politicians and his aides are exhausted from dealing with his mood swings. Start a nuclear war for no clear reason or crash the economy and his approval will fall in the lower terms. Think it or any other huge screw up couldn’t happen. Get real!

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/13/2017 - 12:06 pm.

    Despite his polling numbers reflecting that only a steady minority of Americans approve of Donald Trump, he will probably win the 2020 election (if he runs; he really hates the job and spends very little time working at it).

    Two reasons: First, the media keep playing Trump’s game by devoting all kinds of their attention to his Tweets and White House messiness/confusion instead of letting Americans know what awful stuff his appointees and his (all legal?) Executive Orders are doing in the background. Second, Democrats are still fighting with each other or arguing fringe issues instead of searching for the issues that would bring out their natural constituency to actually vote in elections.

    We are a naturally Democratic nation (big “D” intentional), and the world is astounded that we elected someone not only palpably unfit for the office and lazing his way through it between golf games (where he routinely cheats), but who appeals to such a small portion of nostalgic and fear-ridden Americans. We let ourselves be transfixed by this strange creature in the White House, who by insisting that HE be our constant focus no matter what he does (insult a foreign leader, wave nuclear weapons madly around, take us out of any pact or agency meant to protect our environment, sign Executive Orders that demolish the ACA despite Congres’s inability to destroy it, undermine his own cabinet members, etc.), will win the next election.

  3. Submitted by Nick Foreman on 10/16/2017 - 09:06 am.

    When the poorer whites

    Find out their tax refund will be 25 bucks from “tax reform”, check out his poll numbers

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/16/2017 - 02:01 pm.


      most people are not convinced by numerical facts. See the work that just won Richard Thaler a Nobel.
      If Trump says that they’re better off, and would be even better off if it weren’t for the evil Liberals, they’ll believe him whatever the numbers are.

  4. Submitted by Howard Miller on 10/16/2017 - 04:34 pm.

    Trump isn’t done yet …

    … and the hope is eventually reality will bite enough people to get pressure on Republicans to rein him in, or lose control of Congress ….. I hope I hope I hope ….

  5. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 10/18/2017 - 08:25 am.

    Always a third choice

    Putting aside third party candidates for the moment, there is always the choice of not to vote. I suspect many Sanders supporters took that route and we see what happened.

    The inverse could happen in 2020, with many Republicans unwilling to vote for Trump or the Democratic candidate.

    As to the apparent floor in Trump approval ratings, Trump hasn’t changed since the election. He still lies, exaggerates, self deals, and – in general – behaves badly. But his base knew it, expected it, and in some cases welcomed it. What he’s done (or in many cases just says he’s done) is what they want.

    There hasn’t been time to see the real world implications of his policy on healthcare or tax “reform”.

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