Polls Show Trump Cratering? Not So Fast

by Steve Kornacki /  / Updated 
Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP
President Donald Trump speaks to the press on Aug. 11, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.Jim Watson / AFP-Getty Images file

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Diagnosing the state of President Donald Trump’s political health should be a simple matter. The story that the traditional metrics tell is straightforward.

On a good day for him, Trump’s approval rating might crack 40 percent. But a more typical day lately will put him in the mid- to high-30s, while the worst day, so far, had him plunging to 33 percent. Since his inauguration, Trump’s approval in Gallup’s daily tracker has never exceeded 46 percent, and he only hit that number once — during his first week on the job.

By any historical standard, these numbers are politically catastrophic. And maybe that’s just what they are.

What complicates them, though, is how Trump became president in the first place.

Recall some of the dire polling he faced as a candidate. More than 60 percent of voters didn’t think he was qualified to be president; not even 20 percent thought he had the temperament and personality to serve; more than half of Republicans said they weren’t satisfied with him as their nominee. On Election Day, 60 percent of the electorate said it didn’t like him.

By any historical standard, these were also politically catastrophic numbers, and yet, well, Trump is in the White House. In 2016, the numbers didn’t mean quite what we thought they did.

As narratives of collapse take shape around Trump’s presidency now, the campaign should at least serve as a cautionary tale. It may look like his base is crumbling — and maybe it is — or maybe we’re living through a new version of what happened last year.

Consider the newest round of NBC polling from the three states that put Trump over the top. In Michigan, his approval rating is 36 percent, and in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin it’s 33 percent. This looks brutal and it feeds the perception that Trump’s base is abandoning him. But is it different from his standing in these states during the campaign?

Obviously, he wasn’t president then, so there are no job approval ratings for comparison. But we can look at Trump’s personal popularity, and as Ryan Struyk shows, it turns out it’s pretty much the same now as it was last fall.

Image: Donald Trump speaks to voters on the eve of the state's primary in North Charleston
Donald Trump speaks to voters on the eve of the state's primary on Feb. 19, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

In each state, his favorable rating is in the low to mid-30s, close to where it was during the campaign. Back then, this was taken as a sign Trump would fall short in the Rust Belt; instead, he became the first Republican since the 1980's to win these three states.

Similarly, there's polling now that shows Trump's approval rating slipping among his fellow Republicans. Are they abandoning him? Or is this just another version of what we saw last year when his negative rating among Republicans looked alarmingly high through Election Day — when they snapped back and voted for him at a nearly 90 percent clip.

Among these Republicans, and among a certain type of traditionally Democratic voter in the Rust Belt, there was something that pulled them into Trump’s camp when it mattered — despite their misgivings.

Maybe it was as simple as Hilary Clinton’s own unpopularity or James Comey’s late-October announcement about newly-discovered emails or Clinton’s close association with the political establishment in an anti-establishment year. Maybe it was some combination of all of this.

If Trump’s surprise win was primarily due to weaknesses that are unique to Clinton, then his current poll numbers are as dire as they seem. Likewise, if his reluctant supporters were drawn by the promise of specific, tangible outcomes, then his low job approval should also be seen as a political crisis, a clear sign they don’t feel he’s meeting their expectations.

The question is whether there might be another explanation for the rallying effect that lifted Trump last November.

A theory about Trump, then and now

Hugh Hewitt, the venerable conservative radio host (and one of my MSNBC colleagues), got at this possibility in a recent tweetstorm. Essentially, he suggested that contempt for "elite media" is even wider and more intense than generally recognized — so much so that it binds Trump’s voters to him even as they grow frustrated with his presidential style.

It’s an argument I would have discounted in the past. Resentment toward the media has been a staple of populist conservatism for decades. I’m conditioned to treat it as an aspect of any given Republican’s core base of support — not a force that can be harnessed to defy the political laws of gravity as we understand them.

But it’s not just that Trump registered terrible poll numbers throughout the campaign and then won. It’s also what was going on as he registered those numbers. Simply put, he was at the center of one extinction-level campaign crisis after another: His war of words with the Khan family; remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel that were deemed "the textbook definition of a racist comment" by Paul Ryan; the "Access Hollywood" tape. To call his campaign an uninterrupted parade of 13-alarm political fires wouldn’t be off the mark.

We assume he won in spite of all of this, but what if he didn’t? The controversy, chaos and outrage that Trump stirred also produced a reaction from the media itself. News coverage was withering toward Trump as the election approached, but it went beyond that.

More than we’ve seen in the past, popular culture took sides during the campaign, vehemently pushing back against Trump. It’s hardly new for celebrities to weigh in on behalf of Democrats; but with Trump, the entertainment world was sounding an urgent, existential alarm.

Again, Trump critics will say this was well-deserved; my question here is analytical: Did this kind of reaction from the media and popular culture widen the political divide into a chasm that was not just about Trump and politics but also media and culture?

That would explain how a candidate like Trump could engender such negative feelings from so many voters and yet still rally enough of them behind him to win. It’s not that they like him or even think he’d be a good president. They’re voting against the other side of a vast cultural gap.

It would also cast Trump’s current poll numbers in a different light. After all, the election ended nine months ago, but the campaign atmosphere remains: The frantic news cycles; the mass public engagement; and the bleeding-over of politics into popular culture. Late-night television can feel like an extension of cable news these days.

If his poll numbers ended up being good enough back then, can we be sure they aren’t good enough now?

If it sounds like I have more questions than answers, it’s because I do. There's a risk of over-interpreting any election result, particularly one as surprising as last year's. But Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination and the presidency has challenged me to reconsider what I thought I knew about politics. How many of the supposed rules — as I understood them — don’t apply anymore? Or just don’t apply in the case of Trump? Or never applied at all?

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