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Why Trump’s approval rating could prove very important in the shutdown fight

The party that suffers at the polls will be more likely to cave on DACA.

Mark Wilson/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Over the past month, there’s been an unusual trend in Donald Trump’s approval rating: it’s gone up by a few points from its usually dismal status.

Now, does the new government shutdown that began at midnight put that improvement at risk? Or could it end up improving Trump’s rating even more?

As hackishly political as such concerns may seem, they’ll have real importance in determining how the shutdown fight plays out, and what the consequences will be for hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants — since whichever party suffers at the polls will likely prove more likely to throw in the towel. And for now, neither party is certain how things will go.

Democrats point out that polls suggest the public overwhelmingly wants a deal helping Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients, and they hope that the unpopular Trump will be blamed for failing to reach one. They think his much-covered “shithole” or “shithouse” comments are an easy-to-understand reason for the collapse of negotiations, and they hope the public will flat-out deem Trump and Republicans incompetent for failing to strike a deal.

Meanwhile, Republicans hope to paint Democrats as putting the interests of unauthorized immigrants above those of millions of Americans, in just the sort of racially and ethnically focused conflict Trump has often chosen to embrace. While DACA recipients may be sympathetic, Republicans think shutting down the whole government over them will be viewed as extremist. And they think Trump’s stated position here — funding the government while continuing talks on DACA program — will come across as entirely reasonable.

The backdrop, though, is that after Trump’s approval hit the lowest point of his presidency in mid-December, according to RealClearPolitics’s average of polls, it’s been lately been improving. In a period that’s included the passage of the GOP tax bill, the holidays, and continued good economic news alongside various controversies-of-the-day, Trump’s approval has moved from 37 percent to 40.1 percent.

To be clear: this is still a very bad approval rating, particularly for a president who’s only been in office one year. Per FiveThirtyEight’s historical data, Trump’s number is in fact the worst of any president at this point in his term whom we have polling for. And the magnitude of the recent upward trend is small (just about 3 points).

But of course, any improvement for Trump is good news for him and Republicans as the 2018 midterms approach, and the president and his team hoped it would improve even more.

This is the political backdrop, then, for the government shutdown, and which Trump surely hopes will be resolved before his State of the Union speech in ten days, on January 30.

And again, the blame game both sides are playing has major implications for how things will turn out here. Neither side outright wanted this shutdown, and both fear that it might go badly for them. Whichever party starts to get hammered in the polls — like Republicans did in 2013 — will be more likely to cave.