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Wouldn’t You Love To Have My Ratings?*

By Featured, News

Illustration by Ishita Dharap.

Having recently passed the two-year mark, President Donald Trump’s term has set all manner of new standards. He is as simultaneously worshipped and reviled a man as has ever occupied the post, particularly so with help from online echo chambers. As of last year, Trump’s 43% White House staff turnover rate more than doubled that of any administration since 1981, when National Journal began keeping track (Ronald Reagan’s had the previous record, at 17%). To boot, while no official statistic is available, Trump has undoubtedly set the record for presidential tweets.

It initially comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that his approval rating sits at an unsensational 40%. For reference, Barack Obama’s approval rating sat only moderately higher, at 46.6%. But for Obama, who had entered office at 64.1%, this represented a much more significant decline. Trump’s current number represents a slight fall from its own high water mark of 48% on his sixth day in office. But given that the figure is the product of the most polarized public reaction ever, in which 84% of Republicans approve and only 7% of Democrats do, the 40% statistic itself is a bit of a red herring. It reads like slightly negative consensus, but it actually stems from unprecedented division.

As we can see, a president’s approval rating is a limited statistic. Similar numbers tell vastly different stories for different presidents. Like the stock market, their ups and downs are unpredictable, as they depend largely on the public’s knee-jerk reactions to recent events. That said, on the strength of similar polls, the Gallup Organization — responsible for the advent of presidential approval ratings, starting with Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 — correctly predicted all but three presidential elections between 1938 and 2012. So, limited though they may be, the figures have some merit.

To contextualize Trump’s numbers, and to learn something more about the forces guiding presidential approval ratings, I analyzed data on each of the 14 presidents whose approval ratings have been measured. To see how Trump stacks up, I stuck mostly to presidents’ first two years, though to really understand how and why public sentiment can change, I also looked beyond. These are some of my more significant findings.

Through Two Years

Best Loved: John F. Kennedy. Through two years, Kennedy’s approval rating sat at 76%, a fair representation of its average mark through the early part of his time in office. Kennedy’s approval rating never dipped below 50%, though it had been steadily declining at the time he was assassinated.

Least Loved: Gerald Ford. Ford succeeded Richard Nixon, who departed in disgrace. Before the Watergate scandal, Nixon had won his 1972 re-election bid in a landslide, and his approval rating was flirting with 70%. But by the time he resigned, Nixon’s approval rating had plummeted to 25%. Among Gerald Ford’s first acts in office was pardoning Nixon, whom 58% of people participating in a Gallup poll felt should be tried for possible criminal charges. The country responded in kind; the pardon coincided with a major drop in Ford’s rating, from 71% to 49%. It would bottom out at 35% and then generally remain below half. Ford was not re-elected.

Biggest Change (Positive): George W. Bush. The 2000 presidential election was extraordinarily contentious. Democratic Party nominee Al Gore received roughly 500,000 more votes than Bush, but 5 fewer Electoral College votes, ultimately due to a Supreme Court ruling which awarded Bush Florida’s 25 votes. Appropriately, Bush’s approval rating would hover around 50% until September 11, 2001. The event’s tragedy combined with the country’s perceived vulnerability ballooned Bush’s approval rating to 92%, the highest mark for any president, ever. Unfortunately for Bush, it was all downhill from there. Throughout the next seven years, Bush’s rating steadily declined, spending most of his second term in the 30% range, and dipping a few times to 19% — the lowest mark for any president, ever.

Biggest Change (Negative): Harry S. Truman. Truman, who took over for the four-times-elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, enjoyed a honeymoon period upon entering office. His rating opened at an astonishing 87%, and would remain high for most of his first year. However, following the conclusion of World War II, Truman’s crude, bullish handling of striking labor unions plummeted his rating to 33%. Truman’s mercurial temperament was reflected in his highly volatile approval rating, evidenced best by this sequence of peaks and valleys: 87% → 33% → 64% → 36% → 69% → 22%.

Rules

In attempting to account for these numbers’ behavior, I correlated major changes in approval rating with events or decisions in office. In doing so, several rules — and the exceptions that prove them — came to the fore. I have attempted to interpret them where possible.

Rule: War is good for approval ratings.

Proof:

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s rating fared well throughout World War II, spiking after Germany invaded Poland (Sep 1939) and after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec 1941).
  • The start of the Gulf War (Jul 1990) increased George H.W. Bush’s rating considerably; in the war’s final month (Feb 1991) it reached its highest mark.
  • Both 9/11 and the Invasion of Iraq (Mar 2003) buoyed George W. Bush’s rating. 9/11 pushed it to the highest recorded approval rating ever. In the case of Iraq, it had been falling, and the invasion coincided with a substantial gain.
  • Even the farcical, failed Bay of Pigs Invasion (Apr 1961) spiked John F. Kennedy’s to its highest mark.

Exception that Proves it: The Korean War, which caused an immediate and enduring plunge in Harry S. Truman’s rating.

Rule: Controversy is bad for approval ratings.

Proof:

  • Watergate completely sunk Nixon’s rating. His first post-re-election poll (Feb 1973) showed his highest mark, but after his staffers’ televised Senate hearings (May 1973) it fell below half. When the Supreme Court ordered the release of taped conversations (Jul 1974), it reached its lowest mark.
  • Watergate would also hurt Ford. The first poll released after he pardoned Nixon (Sep 1974) showed a precipitous approval rating drop, from which Ford never recovered.
  • The Iran Hostage Crisis (Nov 1979 – Jan 1981), which Jimmy Carter failed to resolve either militarily or diplomatically (and which Reagan later resolved promptly), led to a major approval rating dip and then a failed re-election bid.
  • After it emerged that Oliver North, National Security Council staff member, had destroyed documents related to Ronald Reagan’s personal involvement in Iran-Contra (Dec 1986), Reagan’s rating fell below half for the first time in four years.

Exception that Proves it: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which actually led to an increase in Clinton’s approval rating.

Rule: During a new President’s first two years, their approval rating falls.

Proof:

  • Ten out of thirteen presidents’ approval ratings dropped over their first two years in office (FDR’s first two years were not measured).
  • Especially dramatic examples include Truman, Carter, and Obama.

Exception that Proves it:

  • Dwight Eisenhower, Bush I, and Bush II, all of whose numbers were buoyed, in that interval, by war.

So, what does it all mean?

The presidential approval rating has historically been an effective representation of how the public feels about their leader. Presidents with low approval ratings at re-election time have generally not been re-elected, and presidents with high ratings generally have been. We’ve yet to see whether this rule applies to Donald Trump, whose approval rating has never exceeded 50%. We do know that at election time in 2016, Trump fared worse than Hillary Clinton in most major polls, but was still elected. Trump’s team has since been under FBI investigation for suspected collusion with Russia, but while major Trump allies like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen have received prison sentences, no evidence has yet emerged that definitively invalidates the 2016 election’s result.

Trump is the major exception in many political categories. In addition to the examples listed above, he defied — and possibly rewrote — campaign strategy guidelines in 2016. For the first time since 1938, the Gallup Organization chose not to run predictive polls for the 2016 presidential election. Whether because the market was flooded with pollsters or because they sensed polls’ diminishing accuracy, it signaled a major first for Gallup. The 2020 election will mark the first test of Trump’s presidential approval rating, and will have major implications for the future of polling.

Big thanks to FiveThirtyEight’s daily updating calculation of Trump’s approval rating, and the Roper Center’s archive of presidential approval rating data.

Previous Rules text:

Rule: War is good for approval ratings.

Proof: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s rating fared well throughout World War II. Truman’s reached 87% shortly after he dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Gulf War pushed George H.W. Bush’s to 89%. 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq buoyed George W. Bush’s to 92% and 71%, respectively. Even the farcical, failed Bay of Pigs Invasion spiked Kennedy’s to 83% (its highest mark).

Exception that Proves it: The Korean War, which sank Truman’s rating irretrievably into the 30% range.

Why? People like to see action, and declaration of war is a more tangible, sensational action than passing legislature. It’s not unlike a person’s self-approval rating: if you feel you spent a day making active progress, you feel good about yourself. The bigger the action, the more the feeling of progress, and war is the biggest, most consequential action of all. Alternately, war is the UFC fight to legislation’s chess match. Fascinating though the latter may be, the former will be much more popular.

Rule: Controversy is bad for approval ratings.

Proof: Watergate completely sunk Nixon — and Ford, whose pardoning of Nixon was viewed as the worst kind of political cronyism. Operation Eagle Claw, Jimmy Carter’s attempt to rescue American hostages from Tehran, Iran, caused eight additional American fatalities, returned no hostages, led to a major approval rating dip and then a failed re-election bid. Iran-Contra, in which senior Reagan officials blundered secret arms deals and then destroyed related documents, sent Reagan’s rating below 50% for the first time in four years.

Exception that Proves it: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which actually led to an increase in Clinton’s approval rating.

Why? This one explains itself. If a president is seen to have failed or deceived, people stop liking them. More in need of explanation is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which had an inverse effect on Clinton’s rating. The likely culprit is a peculiar brand of misogyny, which casts sexually active men in a more flattering light. Similarly, the unwillingness of other men to hold Kennedy accountable was likely also instrumental in explaining away his oft-rumored philandering.

Rule: During a new President’s first two years, their approval rating falls.

Proof: Ten out of thirteen presidents’ approval ratings dropped over their first two years in office (FDR’s first two years were not measured). Especially dramatic examples include Truman, 87% – 55%; Carter, 66% – 42%; and Obama, 68% – 47%.

Exception that Proves it: Dwight Eisenhower, Bush I, and Bush II, all of whose numbers were buoyed by war — Korean War, Gulf War, and War on Terror, respectively.

Why? New things are shiny and wonderful, familiar things are pedestrian and boring. The public’s feelings towards a new president almost always follow this pattern.

 

One Response to Wouldn’t You Love To Have My Ratings?*

  1. El Conjuro 6 says:

    Excelente artículo, me ha encantado, la verdad es que soy gran seguidor de tu perfecta web! Te mando saludos

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