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No Man Is an Island (But Trump Is Getting Kind of Lonely)

The polls show the president grew more unpopular over the summer.
September 12, 2019
No Man Is an Island (But Trump Is Getting Kind of Lonely)
U.S. President Donald Trump during a Rose Garden event at the White House February 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The most recent polling data shows that Trump’s August slide is fast becoming a September swoon. Worst of all from Trump’s perspective is that the polling data with the bleakest news comes from the more reliable polling firms. This data suggests that pundits ought be focusing not on Trump’s approval ratings but upon Trump’s disapproval numbers and the trend line underneath those numbers. If Trump’s job disapproval ratings lock in or exceed 55 percent heading into next year, then Trump’s only hope for re-election is for the Democrats to implode politically. 

Let’s examine the data.  On August 28, the Quinnipiac poll released its survey of registered voters from August 21-26. Not only was Trump’s job approval down by 2 points to 38 percent, but his job disapproval was up to 56 percent. Trump’s disapproval numbers hit 51 percent among white voters, 54 percent among seniors, 60 percent among independents, 61 percent among those ages 18-34, and 62 percent among women.  

On the issues, it was even worse for Trump: 37 percent felt the economy was getting worse vs. only 31 percent who said it was getting better (a double digit rise from June among those who felt the economy was worsening), and by 41 percent to 37 percent, voters felt that Trump’s economic policies were hurting more than helping the economy. On the other major issues? Nothing for Trump to tweet about. His approval rating was negative compared with his disapproval rating as follows: 38-56 percent on foreign policy, 38-59 percent on immigration, 38-54 percent on trade, and—worst of all—32-62 percent on Trump’s handling of race relations. 

Little surprise then that according to Quinnipiac, Trump would lose head-to-head matchups against Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, and Warren.  Trump’s highest support levels were at only 40 percent against Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg.  Trump trailed Biden: 54-38 percent. It is worth noting that Biden carried Democrats in this poll 94-3 percent, while Trump carried Republicans against Biden by 87-10 percent. In short, Biden peeled off more Republicans than Trump peeled off Democrats. 

 Gallup released its polling data after Labor Day of its survey from August 15-30; Trump had a job approval rating of 39 percent and a disapproval rating of 57 percent. This provides a sense of how bad Trump’s summer has gone: Gallup’s July 1 -12 survey had Trump at 44 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval. 

Next up:  the Washington Post/ABC News poll taken from September 2-5. From their poll released July 1, to this poll released September 10, Trump’s job approval declined by 6 points to 38 percent and his job disapproval increased by 3 points to 56 percent. Among registered voters only, that approval-to-disapproval rating for Trump stood at 40-55 percent. This September data also showed Trump falling to 36 percent approval with 58 percent disapproval among independents (vs. 42 percent approval to 54 percent disapproval in July). Men split evenly at 47 percent approving to 47 percent disapproving Trump’s job performance, but women disapproved Trump’s job performance over approval by 64-30 percent. Even 53 percent of white voting age women with less than a college education disapproved of Trump’s job performance, while only 42 percent approved. 

But just as with Quinnipiac, this Washington Post/ABC News gets worse once you get beyond the beauty contest questions. Trump’s economic approval rating dropped from 51 to 46 percent with disapproval on the economy jumping by 5 percent from 42 percent in July to 47 percent. It is worth following the trend lines: Last November in this poll 65 percent described the economy as excellent or good, but in this September poll that had dropped by 9 percent to 56 percent. This poll also found that by 60 percent to 35 percent the nation felt that a recession was very or somewhat likely. And only 35 percent approved of Trump’s handling of the trade negotiations with China, with 56 percent disapproving. 

The drop-offs were quite pronounced among independents: who split equally at 46 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving Trump’s handling of the economy, which the Washington Post noted was a severe “backsliding” from July when independents approved of Trump’s handling by a 12 percent edge. Not to mention that 60 percent of independents disapprovedof how Trump was handling the trade negotiations with China. Overall, 43 percent of the respondents felt that Trump’s trade and economic policies had increased the chance of a recession next year, vs. only 16 percent who felt Trump’s policies had decreased the chances for a recession. 

With all the necessary caveats about the Electoral College and not the popular vote determining the election,  if these disapproval numbers hold or worsen on the economy, it is hard to see a path to victory for Trump. This poll showed Trump losing to Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg, with Trump cracking 40 percent only against Buttigieig, to whom he loses 47-41 (Biden ran strongest l ahead of Trump, 54-38 percent).

Then CNN released a poll taken from September 5-9  showing that 6 in 10 Americans felt that Trump did not deserve to be re-elected. This poll also found that Trump’s net approval on the economy had gone from a +1 percent at the beginning of summer to a -14 percent disapproval in early September. This CNN poll put Trump’s job approval at 39 percent to 55 percent disapproving, with 45 percent strongly disapproving vs. only 28 percent strongly approving.

On September 11, Quinnipiac released a poll of Texas voters taken from September 4-9, and it showed Trump underwater even in Texas, where 45 percent of voters approved and 50 percent disapproved, including independents (who put Trump underwater, by 36 to 50 percent). The net effect of any objective reading of this late-summer data from Quinnipiac, Gallup, the Washington Post/ABC News and CNN, makes the case for a September swoon, given the public’s reaction to the chaos and disorder attending the president’s conduct of economic (especially trade), foreign policy and disaster preparedness.

The media ought to pay particular attention to the percentage of registered voters who think Trump does not deserve re-election and how crucial subsets like independents, suburban residents, and white women with less than a college education feel about the economy, given how strongly opposed other groups are to Trump’s re-election( i.e., millennials, college educated white women and minority voters, especially minority women). Moreover, if a majority of the electorate comes to lose faith that Trump is advancing an economic recovery, given their long held mistrust of his handling of foreign policy and race relations, then Trump will be adrift in harsh political waters heading into next November.

Of course things can change. Trump can right his ship politically and events tied to Democratic mistakes can change the current pattern. But there is nothing verifiable in the most recent polling data to make the case that Trump is on the cusp of turning things around.  Yet, too many pundits remain all too traumatized by Trump having won an inside straight in the Electoral College, when that result was actually predicated upon the harsh de facto anti-incumbent rejection of Hillary Clinton. This anti-incumbent wind remains at gale force heading into 2020, but its wrath appears to be directed at political ship of President Trump, not the vessel of his Democratic opponents.

One wonders if Donald Trump has ever read John Donne. If this September swoon locks in as an enduring measurement of public opinion, perhaps the president ought to  familiarize himself with that poet’s classic admonition. Donne wrote that “No man is an island” before posing the real judgment, “For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Bruce Gyory

Bruce Gyory is a Democratic political strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY-Albany.