While public polling shows President Trump to be in a bleak political situation after a thumping midterm defeat and an unpopular shutdown, Alex Isenstadt of Politico reports that “Trump’s political team has concluded that shutting down the government hasn’t damaged his 2020 prospects — if anything, they’re convinced it’s bolstered his standing in key electoral battlegrounds.”
To support this wild claim, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, provided Isenstadt with the results of a poll conducted by Neil Newhouse and Robert Blizzard on behalf of the Republican National Committee.
Isenstadt, in turn, was given their full write-up of the poll and posted it online for everyone to see. The weird thing about it is that while it would be pretty easy to fake a poll and stuff it full of good news for Trump, they didn’t. They just took a poll that’s full of bad news for Trump — like that his approval rating is probably 13 points underwater nationally and he’s less popular than Democratic House incumbents who are holding down Trump-voting districts — and wrote it up as if it’s good news for Trump.
What the RNC polled and what it said
Instead of conducting a valid survey of national opinion, Newhouse and Blizzard polled 10 House districts. Not 10 random House districts or 10 representative House districts, but 10 districts that Trump won in 2016 but that are represented in the House today by a Democrat — MN-7, NY-2, SC-1, NY-11, OK-5, PA-8, ME-2, VA-7, NY-3, and NY-19.
This is an interesting thing to look at, but the relevant context is Trump won these 10 districts by an average of 12 points in the context of losing the national popular vote by 2 points. In other words, this swath of America is about 14 points Trumpier than the national average.
And what did they find?
- Trump’s approval rating is 49 to 48 percent
- Voters say they support Trump’s policies by a 54 to 43 percent margin
- “By way of comparison, the average approval score for the Democratic Members of Congress in these districts is 35%-20%.”
So, putting this through the 14-point translator, we get the conclusion that Trump’s policies are unpopular nationally and that his favorable rating is probably -13 nationally. It’s true that -13 is a little bit better than the -15 he’s at in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, but it’s well within the range of other results. In other words, there’s no special good news here.
In fact, the only genuinely new finding this poll offers is its look at the popularity of 10 House Democrats who’ve been given the difficult job of trying to hold down seats that are much redder than the national average. And the news here is good for Democrats — the incumbent House members in these districts are popular. None of this is earth-shattering, but it does raise the question of why Trump’s staff seems to be trying to trick him.
The president could use good information
Donald Trump is not a very good president and does not make very good decisions. But it would be challenging for any president to make good decisions if the people around him were deliberately feeding him bad information.
If Trump is made aware that his highly confrontational approach to immigration policy is unpopular, it’s conceivable that he will try to replace it with a different and more popular approach. That would serve his interest in being reelected, but also serve the American people’s strong interest in avoiding future government shutdowns.
And while in general there is more to statesmanship than “do popular stuff while avoiding unpopular stuff,” it’s honestly not a terrible starting point. At a minimum, relative to the current Trump baseline, trying to be more popular — fewer shutdowns and tweets, more happy photo ops to emphasize good economic news, maybe actually doing something about infrastructure — would be a really good idea.
But for that to happen, people in Trump’s orbit need to have the courage to tell him his strategy isn’t working. Instead, Parscale and the RNC seem to be trying to curry favor with the president by painting an unduly rosy picture of the situation — an approach that’s likely to end in tears for everyone.