A lot of people I talk to have the impression that Donald Trump’s approval poll numbers have been improving lately. It’s really not true.
I assume those people have seen a particular pollster or two who have taken a recent approval poll and found a slight rise in Trump’s approval over their previous poll, a rise that is always less than the margin of error for that poll (meaning it is statistically insignificant). But they nonetheless report it as an improvement (which, in some sense, disregards the margin of error that they include in the small print).
My method — which is not brilliant but better than relying on a less-than-the-margin-of-error change in a single poll — is to rely on an average of many, many different polls monitored by the political-numbers-geeks at FiveThirtyEight, the site run by the legendary numbers guru Nate Silver.
The FiveThirtyEight crew adjusts the polls for what they consider the strengths and weaknesses of the relative reliability of each. I couldn’t begin to pierce their methods, but I’m confident they know a lot more than I do about this. And they publish a daily update of the average. And they graph the movements of that average. You can find that graph here.
If you clicked through, you can see that there has been absolutely no significant movement since late January, when there was a not-huge-but-noticeable jump up Trump’s average disapproval number. But that didn’t last, and the approval-disapproval situation went right back to where it has been for a year and a half.
Trump’s disapproval number is about 10 percentage points higher than his approval number. As I write this (on Friday morning), the numbers are 53.3 disapproval/42.6 approval. If you check the site, they may have moved, but they won’t have moved much, as they haven’t in a year.
This isn’t normal, by the way. Most presidents’ approval numbers move around more than this. Something unusual about Trump, or perhaps about polarization and perhaps about the media environment, has caused almost all Americans to lock in solidly and immovably on one side or the other of the thumbs-up-or-down question on him.
You probably know I’m on the thumbs-down side. But it doesn’t seem to matter what anyone says, since very few Americans are switching sides on Trump, with a solid 10-point margin against him. (That doesn’t mean he’s going to lose in 2020, of course. He may succeed in vilifying his general election opponent to a sufficient degree that some of those who disapprove of him will choose him as the lesser of two evils.) And, of course, we’re still a year and a half away from that decision.
Anyway, to repeat, his approval situation isn’t improving. If anything (but I don’t think it’s anything) it’s moving the other way, but by numbers so small they don’t come anywhere near statistical significance. Here’s how the FiveThirtyEight crew described it in the most recent overview I could find:
“According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of negative 10.5 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 52.6 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.1 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.5 points.”
Again, that slip of 0.6 percentage points in the net is nothing to take seriously. But it’s better than taking seriously an individual poll that shows him up (or down) two or three points, which wouldn’t even be statistically significant even within the confines of that one poll.