Donald Trump defied the odds to win the 2016 US presidential election. When he announced his candidacy, virtually nobody thought he had a shot at securing the Republican Party nomination. Having done so, he consistently trailed Hillary Clinton in the polls right up to Election Day, leading to a reasonable widespread presumption that he was going to lose. While pre-election poll averages had Clinton beating Trump by 5 points nationally, she in fact beat him by just slightly over 2 points. That 3 percentage point polling error, while not especially large in statistical terms, was just enough to push Clinton from small leads in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania into razor-thin defeats.
This remarkable turn of events has breathed new life into the pernicious myth of “Teflon Trump,” the notion that the reality television star who is unquestionably a master of obtaining attention is also a master of political persuasion or confusion.
Ruth Marcus wrote a year ago that “Teflon Trump” is hard to attack, and endless think pieces have been churned out on the theme that Trump’s supporters “don’t care” about the various scandals and betrayals swirling around him. Others, like Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, focus on Trump as a master of distraction who uses his frenetic pace of tweets to pull the wool over the American people’s eyes.
The reality is that none of this is true. Trump may be an enormously powerful individual, backed by narrow but cohesive Republican Party majorities in both the House and Senate. But he’s not a popular one.
Donald Trump is not popular
On January 10, Quinnipiac released the first big Donald Trump poll of 2017, and it showed that he retains some strengths as a politician. Most voters think he’s intelligent and that he’s a “strong person.” A plurality believe he has “good leadership skills.”
But his job approval rating is a dismal 37 percent, with 51 percent saying they disapprove of the job he’s doing. Rather than being an effective political tactic, Trump’s habit of frequently saying untrue things has led Americans to conclude by a 53-39 margin that he is not honest. Fifty-two percent say that Trump “does not care about average Americans,” and 62 percent say that he is “not level-headed.”
Even if you make allowances for the fact that polls may be modestly understating Trump’s support, as they appear to have on Election Day, these are dismal numbers.
By contrast, the same poll finds Barack Obama with a 55-39 job approval rating and says that only 34 percent of the public believes Trump will be a better president than Obama (45 percent pick Obama).
Not many pollsters have done Trump job approval ratings yet, since he’s not president yet. But that 55 percent job approval number for Obama is right in line with broad national averages, so it’s unlikely that Quinnipiac has a weird sample or an outlier result here.
Trump’s transition bump has been pathetic
On a call with journalists this morning, the Trump transition team professed to be unconcerned with the president-elect’s weak poll numbers.
“When I look at the polls, his approval ratings continue to go up,” said incoming press secretary Sean Spicer.
Trump’s favorable numbers did get a boost after he won the election, likely due to new respect from Republicans who were angry in the summer and fall that his antics seemed to be blowing a very winnable election for the GOP.
But Trump’s bounce has been sharply limited by his failure to take advantage of his honeymoon movement by doing any kind of meaningful outreach to reassure those alarmed by his victory. His numbers have plateaued at an underwater level that leave him as the least popular president-elect of all time.
Trump benefits from a united party and a divided opposition
People who find Trump’s antics to be bizarre and alarming and who wonder how the American people could possibly fall for them should not feel isolated and alone — many people enjoy the Trump Show, but most do not.
The reason he won the election isn’t that most people thought he’d be a good president — it’s that many people who didn’t think he’d be a good president voted for him anyway. Trump won a landslide 47-30 margin among voters who said they had an unfavorable view of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He won less than 50 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Utah even while obtaining 101 electoral votes from those seven states.
Since Democrats lost the election, they have spent the past two months embroiled in inevitable post-defeat recriminations. By contrast, Republicans have been shifting to close ranks around Trump. During the campaign, about a dozen Republican Party senators indicated that they would not vote for him. One might think that US senators who deemed Trump too dishonest, unstable, unethical, and possibly corrupt to vote for would, after his victory, insist on rigorous congressional oversight of his business dealings and his appointees. But one would be mistaken.
While Trump has received some pushback from Capitol Hill on this or that, by and large the Republican senators who opposed him are currently trying to implement a strategy of “forgive and forget,” thinking that if they agree to ignore his financial conflicts of interest, he will sign the laws they pass, and all will end happily ever after. This implicit bargain may be wise or it may be foolish, and it certainly empowers Trump. But that’s not the same as making him popular.
Trump is on very thin ice
The United States isn’t a plebiscitary democracy.
Donald Trump has four years in office, during which he can wield the impressive powers of the presidency whether people like him or not. The 2018 Senate map is favorable to the GOP, and the way district boundaries have been drawn ensures that House Republicans can retain a majority even if most people vote for their opponent. Trump himself showed in 2016 that he is capable of winning elections without getting more votes than his opponent and without being popular. All of which is to say that Trump’s unpopularity has somewhat limited relevance. To the extent that the GOP continues to hang together, it will have enormous capacity to govern.
But Republicans are operating in risky territory. Trump is unpopular in a way that is without precedent for a new president. Polls show that the public is genuinely concerned about Trump’s financial conflicts of interest and the lack of disclosure of his personal finances.
Trump could have — but did not — choose to use his transition period to address the public’s concerns about those issues or try to put to rest the public’s very serious doubts about his temperament. That leaves both Trump and his co-partisans in Congress essentially hostage to events. The first time anything goes wrong, Trump will be facing a public that’s primed to believe the president is ill-tempered, dishonest, unqualified, and already doing a bad job — and he has no media magic that can help him cover that up.