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Trump’s approval ratings are better than Watergate-era Nixon and second-term George W. Bush

He’s also ahead of energy crisis-era Jimmy Carter and recession George H.W. Bush. So there’s that.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

Five and a half months ago, Donald Trump began his presidency with historically terrible approval ratings for a new president.

Then, once he was in office, his ratings sank further.

But for the past month and a half, they’ve more or less stabilized.

Recently, Trump’s approval ratings have been, on average, in the high 30s to low 40s. This is, to be clear, not good. It’s the range where the ratings of several other recent presidents — Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford — were at during the lowest points of their respective presidencies.

However, Trump remains clearly above where the recent presidents who have gotten really unpopular — Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush — ended up falling. Their ratings sank to the low 30s and sometimes the high 20s. Trump’s approval has not yet plumbed those depths.

That’s according to a comparison of the major media outlets that average Trump job approval polls that are conducted by different outlets — RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight, HuffPost Pollster — with Gallup and FiveThirtyEight’s historical approval data for past presidencies.

How Trump’s approval has risen and fallen so far

For Trump, the various approval averages differ by a point or two depending on their respective methodologies, but they tell essentially the same story.

That is: Trump’s approval started off mediocre, in the mid-40s or so. By mid-May, it had dropped to around 40 percent, and since then, it’s remained around there, give or take a point or so:

Here, for instance, are RealClearPolitics’ numbers:

The RCP average finds that:

  • Trump had far less of a honeymoon than previous presidents. It’s likely that bitterness from the campaign (both major candidates ended it as very unpopular), Trump’s own failure to reach out or change his approach to politics during the transition, and his controversial start to his presidency with his travel ban all contributed to this.
  • The president’s approval rating first began falling down near 40 percent at the end of March — a period in which the House Republican health care bill dominated the news, and when FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed he was investigating whether the Trump campaign had coordinated with Russia.
  • April, however, was a relatively good month for Trump — his approval recovered by a few points. Notably, both the health bill and the Russia scandal weren’t in the news much.
  • But in early May, House Republicans revived their health bill, passing it on May 4. Then, Trump fired Comey on May 9, leading to a series of scandalous revelations. The president’s approval plummeted back around 40 percent and occasionally below there. Trump’s approval hasn’t recovered since.

The most unpopular presidents were dogged by major scandal, economic turmoil, or an unpopular war

Many stories have been written about the fact that, despite the frequent chaos and overwhelming negative media coverage of Trump’s presidency so far, most of his voters (and most Republicans generally) continue to say they approve of the job he’s doing.

This is, of course, important to keep in mind. But it’s also quite common, historically. Partisans tend to be loyal — especially early in a presidency, when they want to give the person they voted for a chance to succeed.

Indeed, when we look at the presidents whose approval ratings ended up sinking below where Trump’s is now — Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush — it’s clear that they only fell so low relatively late in their presidencies. And it took economic pain, major scandal, or a bloody war to get them there:

  • Richard Nixon was relatively popular throughout his first term, with an approval rating that never fell much below 50 percent and was often well above that. But in early 1973, revelations that his top aides were tied to the cover-up of the Watergate burglaries sent his ratings downward. After the October 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, in which Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating the matter, his ratings fell to the high 20s and never really recovered, leading to his resignation in August 1974.
  • Jimmy Carter also started off quite popular, but his approval rating had dropped to about where Trump’s is now by his second year in office, and then the energy crisis and economic turmoil of 1979 pushed him down into that dismal low 30s and high 20s territory. A brief rally-round-the-flag effect after the Iranian hostage crisis first broke out wasn’t enough to save his reelection.
  • George H.W. Bush was remarkably popular through his first three years in office — he won praise for his management of the end of the Cold War, and for the Gulf War. But economic woes in 1992 caused his approval rating to suddenly plummet, and paved the way for Bill Clinton to win the presidency later that year.
  • And then his son George W. Bush’s approval ratings didn’t fall to where Trump is now until 2005, the first year of his second term. Then, he fell far lower, dragged down by a lack of progress in the Iraq War in 2006 and, in his final two years, economic crisis.

So Nixon faced damning scandalous revelations, Carter and both Bushes faced economic pain, and George W. Bush also was running an unpopular war.

Trump, in comparison, has been dogged by the Russia scandal, but the US economy remains in decent shape and US war deaths are well below where they were in the Bush and early Obama years. So it makes sense that his supporters haven’t abandoned him in droves just yet.

Presidents as unpopular as Trump is now usually suffer electoral defeats. But some manage to bounce back.

To be clear, an approval rating around 40 percent is quite bad for a president.

In the particular case of President Trump, it’s important to keep in mind that he was elected due to several very narrow (less than 1 percentage point) wins in key Electoral College states, while losing the popular vote. That means that national polling might understate his electoral prospects a bit. But it also means that if he loses even a relatively small amount of his support, he could lose reelection.

Still, an approval rating in this range is far from unprecedented — in fact, every recent president has had at least one period where their ratings have dipped about this low.

We’ve already talked about Nixon, Carter, and the Bushes, so let’s turn our attention to the other four presidents in that timespan: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

  • Gerald Ford became president when Nixon resigned in August 1974, and by the end of that year and early 1975 his approval ratings were in this low 40s/high 30s range. (His decision to pardon Nixon was very controversial.) However, he recovered by a few points in the rest of 1975 and the following year — enough to make his 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter a narrow defeat, not a landslide.
  • Ronald Reagan hit this low 40s/high 30s range during the 1982 recession, and Republicans ended up doing poorly in that year’s midterm elections. However, by the time his reelection rolled around two years later, the economy had recovered, and so did Reagan’s ratings. He was remarkably popular for most of the first two years of his second term, until the Iran-Contra scandal sent his approval down into mediocre territory in late 1986.
  • Bill Clinton had his worst approval ratings during various periods in his first two years, leading eventually to the Democrats’ loss of both houses of Congress. But like Reagan, he managed to recover — an economic boom helped deliver his reelection and helped him survive scandal and impeachment in his second term.
  • Finally, there were two main periods in which Barack Obama consistently got approval ratings about as low as Trump’s current ones. First, there was the late summer and fall of 2011, when the economy looked grim and Congress nearly failed to raise the debt ceiling — but conditions improved in 2012, leading to Obama’s reelection. Then, there was a period of about a year from the end of 2013 through the end of 2014 where Obama again sank to the low 40s — leading to a GOP landslide in the midterms that year. Obama’s approval, however, recovered in his final two years.

When a president’s approval rating gets about where Trump’s is now, electoral defeat for his party usually follows — as it did in 1976 for Ford, 1982 for Reagan’s Republicans, 1994 for Clinton’s Democrats, and 2014 for Obama’s Democrats.

But Reagan, Clinton, and Obama managed to bounce back afterward, through either economic good fortune or political savvy. They make clear that a low 40s approval rating isn’t necessarily a death sentence for a presidency. That, at least, should be some comfort for Trump.