A small gloat, and then a relevant thought about the future of our wheezing experiment in self-government.
First the gloat — but it’s really just the usual update every few weeks of my occasional series on the approval rating of the current occupant of the Oval Office. As usual, no major changes.
Based, as usual, on the fivethirtyeight.com weighted average of many pollsters’ approval ratings, President Donald Trump’s numbers have declined measurably but not much over the past two weeks. The political numbers gurus at the site say that the adjusted average of recent credible polls, as of Wednesday morning, was:
41.1 percent approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president; 54.0 percent disapprove.
That’s a gap, in the wrong direction if you are rooting for Trump, of 12.9 percentage points. I won’t round it up to 13 to make it look worse. That’s not how I roll. But that’s quite a bad approval rating — not historically bad but clearly bad. His most recent short-lived rally got him to a still bad (but-not-as-bad) gap of 9.7 percentage points below water.
The small gloat is this: When I last I wrote, CNN’s politics watcher Chris Cillizza called Trump’s approval the highest it had been in many months, which led to the ridiculous headline that Donald Trump was more popular than ever.
No, he wasn’t. It was one poll, even if from a highly regarded pollster like Gallup, and other polls taken at the same time suggested that it was an outlier. Since then, Gallup’s next number showed Trump’s approval level falling back to where it has been and, at 42 percent, within less than a percentage point of the 538 average.
I won’t bring that up again. The latest numbers suggest that Trump’s numbers are bad, not historically bad but very bad, and the recent trend is in the direction of worse. But if the story-till-now continues, it probably won’t fall much further and could recover soon. Or not. (I actually can see the future, but choose not to look.)
On to the worrisome but relevant (I hope) thought. A candidate with a below-water approval rating can win an election if he or she is running against someone whom enough voters dislike even more. That was one of the keys to the unexpected outcome in 2016.
According to an exit-poll-driven post-election piece by CNN, exit polls found that 14 percent of all voters disliked both candidates, and that this group of double dislikers broke for Trump a staggering 69 percent to 15 percent. If the double dislikers had stayed home, or had refused to vote for either of the major party presidential nominees, Clinton would have won in a landslide.
Two ways you can go with that insight. One is that the Democrats need to nominate someone more “likable” than Hillary Clinton. I am not Clinton’s biggest fan, but I am sure she would have been a much better president. Nor do I vote (at least I hope I don’t) on anything as silly as likability or the ridiculous rather-have-a-beer-with test.
But, to nail down the possible importance of that final point – and I say this from the gut and with deep conviction: Donald Trump has almost no ability to get people who don’t like him to like him. He has little ability to get people who are not already part of his core support to vote for him based on his actual policies and their likely positive impact on the nation and its people.
But, apparently, Donald Trump’s great charm (and I use the word sarcastically) is his ability to talk smack about anyone running against him (as he did with every one of the Republicans he defeated for the 2016 nomination and as he did relentlessly and shamelessly against Clinton and is already starting to do against the Democrats preparing to run against him in 2020).
He does it by such classy maneuvers as assigning his opponents a disparaging nickname and, if necessary, accusing them of crimes far more serious than the crimes he has very likely committed.
It seems to work. And if it continues to work, the election will not be a referendum on whether a majority of Americans approve of the job Donald Trump has done as president. (A vote he could not possibly win unless he breaks out of the low-approval hell he has inhabited throughout his term.) But Trump’s great gift might be his ability to get people to dislike his opponent even more than they dislike him. As he himself might tweet: