President Trump is unpopular. Historically unpopular, in fact. His approval rating has only gotten worse from the moment he stepped into office, and by all historical accounts, it is incredibly difficult to envision a two-term Trump presidency.
But by all historical accounts, it was also incredibly difficult to envision a one-term Trump presidency. Trump had the worst unfavorable score in Gallup’s history (61%) the week of the 2016 election. Gallup’s last daily tracking poll pegged Trump at 55% disapproval this past New Year’s Eve. FiveThirtyEight averages all of his polls to 54.5% disapproval. Despite the fact that Trump began his presidency with a higher approval than disapproval rating, you can make a case that Trump is more popular now than he was the day he won the election.
Not to mention, these polls reflect everyone’s opinion of Donald Trump, and in our “democracy,” not everyone votes. Generic opinion polls may be useful to help take the temperature of the Republic, but not when it comes to forecasting elections. At best, roughly 60% of the populace can be expected to show up and vote in 2020, and when you drill down to likely voters’ opinion of Trump, the results are even more alarming.
With the demise of Gallup’s daily tracking poll, that leaves Rasmussen as the only outlet polling the public each day on Trump’s job performance. Per their latest poll, likely voters disapprove of Trump at just a 53% rate, while 45% approve. To put that figure in context, the final RealClearPolitics average put President Obama at 48.8% in 2012 (he won with 51.1% of the vote). If Trump can tilt just five percent more likely voters in his direction, he’s in pretty good shape to win in 2020.
And he’s done it already. In Rasmussen’s daily tracker, Trump was at 39% approval on August 4th last year. He was also at 50% approval only seven months ago. It’s easy to duck into an echo chamber and feel like no one likes President Trump, but reality just doesn’t bear that out. The latest Quinnipiac poll has 43% of voters giving Trump an A, B or C grade on his first year in office. Trump is still fairly popular, even though he is historically unpopular—such is the contradiction of the United States of America. By all accounts, around 40% of Americans seem like they would be OK with giving this madman another term in office.
Because we live in an anti-democracy where two parties control every aspect of political life, we tend to think of 50% as the true threshold for popularity, but that’s not really the case. Check out RCP’s 2012 average again. Obama bounced around between 46% and 49% for the entire race against Mitt Romney. Save for the first six weeks of Trump’s presidency where he sat above 50%, he has hovered between 40% and 45% approval amongst likely voters. Trump’s chances for reelection just aren’t a whole lot worse than Obama’s were.
I don’t raise this point to troll, or to out myself as a closet Trump supporter (this is an absurd charge leveled at Paste so often that it has become something of a running joke amongst our writers), but because I am scared that liberals are getting cocky, and will blow a golden opportunity. We won a bunch of elections at the end of 2017. Alabama—Alabama!—elected a Democratic Senator. If the Virginia election is any indicator of the future, there are so many pissed off folks in cities and their surrounding areas (also known as where 80% of Americans live) that it doesn’t matter how many hardcore Trump votes he can squeeze from “Real America.” We won elections because we showed up, and we cannot take this energy for granted.
Trump can easily win reelection, folks. Incumbents always have an advantage from a monetary and organizational perspective, and given that those who “strongly support” him bottom out at somewhere around 25%, we should be very concerned about a second Trump term. Let me just walk you through some harrowing math on that 25% (which, keep in mind, is his worst-case scenario for his strongest supporters).
— 139 million people voted in 2016, surpassing the all-time high we hit in 2008. Let’s assume the same figure for 2020.
— If that 25% shows up to vote, that’s 34,750,000 votes for Trump.
— That’s 55% of the votes Trump got in 2016, and 53% of what Hillary received.
— If the 45% of likely voters who approve of Trump vote for him, he’d be about three million votes away from matching Hillary’s vote total, and about four hundred thousand votes away from matching the number he hit in 2016.
Bottom line: no matter what Trump does between now and 2020, he is at least, halfway to being reelected, and likely further along than that.
The caveat to all of this data is that none of it is enough to push Trump over the finish line right now. If Trump receives the exact amount of votes these polls indicate—and no more—he will almost surely lose. Even though he was elected with the highest disapproval rating in Gallup’s history, Hillary Clinton had the second highest ever of any presidential candidate. The 2016 election is an outlier, and the president reelected with the highest unfavorable rating ever was George W. Bush at only 39% in 2004. The fear I want to communicate is that it would not take much movement in these numbers to flip Trump from an underdog to a favorite (most betting markets peg the Democrats as slight 2020 favorites).
Trump is not some anomaly who is anathema to America’s values. He is the mascot for not just the American white supremacy that inspired Hitler, but our overall culture which believes that Greed Is Good. A significant chunk of Americans think that being poor reflects moral failings, and electing a rich, self-obsessed sociopath lines up with plenty of our values. Not our professed values, of course. Americans disconnect our beliefs from our actions as well as anyone in the developed world.
We live in a country who instinctively believes that capitalism is both a tool to uplift AND punish people, and Trump embodies all of our worst traits. He is as American as apple pie. Stop treating him like an alien. The lesson of the Trump era is that all of us—myself included—underestimated the rot at the heart of the American experiment. We are a lost people—a modern version of the Israelites worshiping the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. Trump is the clearest marker yet of our broad societal decline, and these polls indicate that a significant number of Americans want to see how much worse things can get.
My message here is to stay hungry. The Trump presidency seems like it is on the ropes because people concerned about the direction of our country showed up in droves at the end of 2017, and made their voices heard. We cannot take for granted that this is the new status quo. If you do not show up to vote, assume that no one else is either. Politics is a team sport, and it will take all of us to defeat a president who embodies and is endorsed by the worst parts of this country.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.