February 17, 2017
President Trump had a moment of clarity during his wild press conference Thursday. Ever the poll-doubter, he actually acknowledged his polling reality.
"Some of the things I'm doing probably aren't popular, but they're necessary for security and for other reasons," Trump said.
That right there suggests all of Trump's bluster about how every negative poll is "fake news" is just that — bluster. But it also reveals something else about Trump: He isn't terribly concerned about being unpopular. All he truly feels the need to do is keep his base happy.
And he's doing just fine on that count.
A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows Trump's GOP base, if anything, is slightly happier than many other recent presidents' bases have been. For all the talk about how Trump's approval ratings are the lowest for a new president in modern history and all of the increasingly public hand-wringing by elected Republicans, actual GOP voters are still very much onboard the Trump train.
Fully 84 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approve of Trump right now. Of the last six presidents, only Barack Obama was in better shape with his base the month after his inauguration, with 86 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners. Both Bushes were at 82 percent, and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were slightly under 80 percent.
Trump, of course, is doing considerably worse than his predecessors with everyone else. Hence the 39 percent approval rating in Pew's poll and the 40 percent approval rating in the Gallup tracking poll. His overall approval rating, as Gallup notes, is 21 points below the average dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.
But there's a credible case to be made that overall approval matters less than in the past. As I wrote last week, Republicans have majorities in both chambers of Congress, which means Trump doesn't really need a lot of crossover support. He may get some, simply because some Senate Democrats come from very pro-Trump states, but Trump is far less reliant on bipartisan support than a president who is dealing with split control of Congress:
And a big reason is that the only party he really needs to appeal to — his own — is still onboard, as it has been for a while. Even in June, at the bottom of Candidate Trump's image ratings — 29 percent favorable vs. 70 percent unfavorable — he still had the support of 65 percent of Republicans. About 34 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of their soon-to-be nominee.
Even in such a case, though, Trump could arguably still govern. Republicans, after all, have majorities in both chambers of Congress, and the vast majority of Republicans in Congress come from safe districts and states. As long as a majority of their primary electorates liked Trump, these members would feel pressure to support him.
Trump now has much more unified GOP support than he did back in June — 84 percent vs. 65 percent.
Sure it would be nice for Trump if everyone loved him, but that's not the same as saying he needs that love to actually accomplish what he wants to. And given he was elected president with his approval rating hovering right around where it is now, you can see why Trump may not feel the need to change it up.
All of this could change, of course. We still haven't seen Congress start the difficult work of passing major legislation like health care and tax reform. And given the tight 52-48 Republican Senate majority, if even three GOP senators desert Trump on any given issue, he's got problems.
But by doing so, they would be running afoul of a president whom an overwhelming majority of their party's base still likes. And after they were burned over and over again when they tried to stop Trump during the campaign, you can bet that shows of obstinacy will have to be considered carefully.
From the very beginning, Trump's lackluster approval ratings have beguiled all of us. They're why we insisted he couldn't win the GOP primary or the presidency. And you can bet they've got plenty of people wagering that he'll never win reelection in 2020.
But in our increasingly partisan country and with a GOP-controlled Congress, that overall number probably means less than we think it does.
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