This is a guest post by our partners at Pollitik and the Executive Approval Project, concentrating in the comparative measurement and analysis of political leaders across the world. The following members of Pollitik’s editorial team contributed to this post: Ji-Ih Choi, Brenda Mercado, Kelsi Quick, Kevin Sanchez Farez & Ryan E. Carlin.
Because presidents leverage popularity into power—to advance their agendas, weather crises and win re-election—presidential approval is an important tool that citizens can wield to hold their leaders in check. Conventional wisdom holds that American presidents enjoy a honeymoon period of relatively high support, which slowly dwindles over time until new elections raise the incumbent’s public standing once again.
The American public treated Donald J. Trump, the 45th President, in ways that clash with this election-cycle pattern. After virtually no honeymoon, his approval did not fluctuate much, and his modest pre-election bounce was cut short by the January 6 insurrection in 2021.
Do Trump’s popularity dynamics make him an outlier: a ‘person or thing that is atypical within a particular group, class, or category’, per Merriam-Webster? Answering this question can guide our expectations about what lays in store for current and future presidents.
The Flatline President
Most American presidents, like their counterparts in Latin America and Europe, enjoy a popular ‘honeymoon’ at the outset of their terms. Trump’s honeymoon, if it existed at all, was much shorter. Whereas many presidents find the honeymoon period to be a time of their highest approval ratings, Trump’s first six months in office saw some of his lowest ratings. Beginning in the mid-40s, Trump’s popularity dropped quickly, registering some of its lowest levels of around 37% by the six-month mark. Is he an outlier in this regard?
Yes and no. Most American presidents have polling numbers above 50% during their honeymoon. Trump never did, making him unique among American presidents. But he’s not the only president to have a non-traditional honeymoon. Public support for Bill Clinton nosedived as his cabinet nominations hit resistance. George W. Bush’s initial numbers were stable but generally below 50%. In this respect, while Trump did have some unusual approval dynamics, he was not an outlier, at least not the sole one.
Governing presumably ends the honeymoon. With each new decision a president makes new political enemies out of former supporters, steadily eroding their approval. Such are the ‘costs of ruling.’ Trump clearly bucked this trend.
After the six-month mark, Trump’s approval fluctuated within a narrow eight-point range. Despite a presidency marked by domestic shocks such as racial justice protests, a pandemic, and impeachment, Trump was able to stay within his narrow approval margins, his overall approval remaining relatively stable. This stability in the face of such turmoil demonstrates just how few ‘costs of ruling’ Trump actually paid. An oddity? Yes. The only other American president to defy political gravity in this way was Dwight Eisenhower, though with much high public standing and many decades past.
Most American presidents see their popularity recover as elections near. Those running for re-election may stage symbolic domestic and international events, goose the economy, and engineer a campaign to highlight their achievements. Here again Donald Trump defies expectations. By Election Day his popularity pulled even with its pre-pandemic levels. But instead of continuing along this trajectory, Trump lost 9 points—from 44% to 35%—between the 2020 Election Day and Joe Biden’s inauguration—more than half which were shed before the January 6 Capitol insurrection. In their final three months in office, fellow one-term presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush saw their approval ratings recover, respectively, by roughly 7 and 8 points. Donald Trump, by contrast, left office less popular than at any other time in his tenure.
Distinct from these election-cycle dynamics, but still part of the received wisdom, is the so-called ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect which boosts incumbent leaders’ public standing when the nation is perceived by populace to face a grave threat. COVID-19 produced massive rally effects for many of Trump’s counterparts across the globe. Trump’s rally effect, if it can be called that, was one of the weakest on record and evaporated quickly after the public soured on his pandemic response. Yet American Presidents have historically benefitted from such effects. John F. Kennedy’s approval surged roughly 13 points for during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Jimmy Carter’s approval saw similar increase during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Operation Desert Storm fuelled a rally effect twice that size for George H.W. Bush and 9/11 delivered his son a rally effect about three times as large.
Sign of the Polarised Times?
The United States has become undeniably more politically and socially polarised in recent decades. Can it account for Trump’s unusual approval dynamics? To some extent, yes.
Of the three patterns we have explored, polarization sheds the most light on why Trump paid little of the ‘costs of ruling’. Broken down by party, support for Trump was more polarised than for any president in the polling era. Polarised approval has grown mightily since George H.W. Bush’s presidency and helps explain the relatively flat approval ratings in Obama’s first term.
Rising polarisation also sheds light on why re-election campaigns have boosted approval of Trump and other recent presidents so little. Neither George W. Bush or Barack Obama recovered as much of their approval ahead of their re-election bids as their predecessors. If polarisation remains high, this traditional dynamic of presidential approval may go the way of the Dodo.
Polarisation affects honeymoons as well. Amidst mounting polarisation, unconventional starts to Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s tenure coupled with Clinton’s disastrous first six months led expert James Stimson to conclude that the ‘traditional beginning-of-term honeymoon […] is clearly no longer traditional’ (Tides of Support, 143). George W. Bush also fit this mould. Yet Barack Obama’s honeymoon period of heightened approval, though unimpressive, closely resembled that of Jimmy Carter. Joe Biden is also enjoying a honeymoon of sorts. But far from a reversion to the norm, Biden’s honeymoon is undergirded by record-high polarisation by party and strong support among voters that identify as independents.
Polarisation alone cannot, however, explain why Trump began so unpopular. His public image as a candidate was historically poor and spawned a Republican Never-Trumper Movement. According to Gallup, only 36% of Americans held a favourable image of Trump on the eve of the 2016 elections. Among elected presidents, Joe Biden is the next least-liked candidate with favourability ratings in the high-40s to low-50s. Trump’s poor image also helps understand his ‘eerily stable’ support. As Ezra Klein speculated in the article, ‘Trump isn’t Teflon. It’s simply that whatever will stick to him has already stuck to him’. The flatline president.
Just an Outlier or the New Normal?
So, do Donald Trump’s approval ratings make him an outlier? In some respects, but perhaps not in others. Rather, they could signal a ‘new normal’ in an increasingly polarised America: campaigns so batter candidates that they begin with their approval under water and cannot recover as elections approach. And honeymoons periods are no longer grace periods by the press and a judicious public and better approximate blind partisan loyalty.
More worrisome than shifts in approval around elections is what happens in between. If what presidents do in office and how they do it have little impact on their public standing, the public will have relinquished a key lever of accountability. As such, Trump’s presidency may have not only reshaped norms of presidential behaviour but also the norms surrounding how Americans judge their leaders.