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Trump's Poll Numbers Rise, but Only With His Base

According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, one group of voters may be at the core of Trump’s bump: men without a college degree.
Image: A Trump supporter gestures prior to President Trump's appearance at a rally in support of  Senator Strange in Huntsville
A Trump supporter gestures prior to President Donald Trump's appearance at a rally in support of Senator Luther Strange at the Von Braun Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin GentryMARVIN GENTRY / Reuters

After a rough summer, the latest poll numbers look a bit better for President Donald Trump. But according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, one group of voters may be at the core of Trump’s bump: men without a college degree.

The September NBC/WSJ poll, conducted before this weekend’s presidential feud with NFL and NBA players, showed a rise of 3 points in Trump’s job approval number, up to 43 percent compared to August’s 40 percent. That September figure marked the highest job approval score for Trump since the start of his administration when he was at 44 percent in February.

Trump has seen a similar uptick in other surveys. Gallup’s latest weekly average had the president up 3 points, to 38 percent, compared to late August. The Real Clear Politics polling average, an aggregation of many polls, showed Trump at 41.3 percent on Friday – the highest he has been in that measure since mid-May.

To be clear, those numbers are still historically low. In September of 2009, President Barack Obama’s approval number was 51 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll. In September of 1993, President Bill Clinton’s was 50 percent in the poll. (We excluded President George W. Bush because his very high number, 82 percent, came immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)

But regardless of its historical comparisons, the increase in approval was welcome news for Trump. After months of wondering where the president’s approval might bottom out, the numbers were a sign that he might have some room for growth

And there was another hopeful bit of news in the latest NBC/WSJ poll for a White House that has leaned heavily on partisan support. The president got a big increase in job approval from self-described independent voters. In the September survey, 41 percent of independents approved of his job performance compared to 32 percent in August – that’s an impressive 9-point spike.

Trump’s improved numbers came in a time of relative social media calm for the president. Before this weekend’s public feud with professional football and basketball players, there had been a shift in recent news coverage that included a steady diet of reports on hurricane assistance and bipartisan overtures from the White House.

The September NBC/WSJ poll suggested that a more moderate tone had helped move Mr. Trump’s approval rating. For example, a remarkable 71 percent of those surveyed approved of Trump’s working with congressional Democrats on funding for hurricane relief and to avoid a government shutdown.

The Base Impact

Beneath that good news for Trump in the poll, a different set of numbers raised questions about just how much the political environment had changed. Driving the growth in approval for Trump in the NBC/WSJ poll was one demographic group, men, and particularly men without a college degree.

If one looks just at male respondents, Trump didn’t just get a bump in job approval the latest poll, he saw a surge. Those “approving” or “strongly approving” of the president’s job performance jumped 7 points in the September poll, up to 49 percent compared to 42 percent in August.

Among women, the approval number dropped ever so slightly to 37 percent in September – it was essentially flat compared to 38 percent in August.

After factoring a college degree into how men rated Trump’s job performance, his support looked even more concentrated in one area.

In September, Trump’s job approval number among men without a college degree was 55 percent. That was up 11 points from August when 44 percent of that same group approved of his job performance. That group made up the bulk of Trump’s September improvement.

Men with a college degree were much less sanguine about the president, only 37 percent of that group approved of Trump’s performance in the September poll. And again that was down or flat, from the August poll, when 38 percent of them approved.

Taken together these numbers can be looked at a few different ways.

One could say it’s remarkable that the president garnered a three-point increase in approval based largely on this subgroup of the population. That suggests there’s room for him to grow if he can just win some support from a few other sizable groups of voters – such as women or men with a degree.

Of course, that was before this weekend’s latest set of provocative comments.

But even after a series of good news cycles that moved some voters, the groups who disapprove of Trump’s job performance seemed fairly stable in their disapproving views. And moving them may not be easy.