President Trump's approval rating is on the upswing or so a recent flurry of polling articles would have us believe. CNN and others have trumpeted the news that “Trump's job approval at the highest since taking office.” If even CNN admits that polling shows Trump as more popular than ever, it must be true, right? The reality isn't so clear.
The most obvious caution is that the Marist poll that CNN refers to is a single poll and any individual poll should be viewed in the context of other polls and the historical trends of that particular pollster. The second problem for Trump supporters is that the headline leaves unspoken the fact that the poll shows Trump's approval at 44 percent with 49 percent disapproval. While comparing this poll with previous Marist polls over the past few month does register a positive trend, Mr. Trump is still underwater in every poll listed on Real Clear Politics.
Because polling is not a precise science (see the 2016 election as exhibit A), it is helpful to look at polls in the context of similar polls from other sources. Both Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight have graphs that incorporate the average of all presidential approval polls to aid in this analysis. FiveThirtyEight's average of polls shows Trump's highest approval as president on January 25, 2017 at 47.8 percent. This is the only period when his net approval rating was positive.
When these graphs are examined, we find that Trump's approval has been mostly flat since last spring, but it does show an increase from January to February followed by a sharp dip and recovery in late February. We can examine the news cycle to determine what has impacted President Trump's approval rating both positively and negatively.
The rise in President Trump's approval rating can be traced to December 17, 2017. This was the final stages of the tax reform fight in Congress. Initially, the tax reform bill was unpopular, but as voters came to understand that the bill included cuts for the majority of taxpayers, the bill gained favor. After the passage of the law, the economy picked up quickly with employers offering bonuses and announcing expansion plans. This good news, along with workers finding more money in their paychecks in January and February, obviously helped buoy Trump's approval.
The rise in the president's approval suffered a minor blip in late January. His average approval rating fell about two points from January 17 through January 24. Taking the polling lag into account, this coincides perfectly with run-up to the government shutdown that lasted from January 19 through January 22.
President Trump reached his peak approval in recent months on February 15, one day after the Parkland, Fl. school shooting. Trump's approval again fell two points over the next 10 days until it began to rebound on February 26. What happened around this date to turn things around?
The answer is in Trump's sudden embrace of gun control. On February 21,CNN reported that President Trump announced a de facto executive ban on bump stocks. The next day, Trump tweeted his support for mental health background checks and raising the minimum age to buy a gun to 21 as well as reiterating support for the bump stock ban. On February 26, Trump was in the midst of a series of attacks on the NRA. Although elected as a pro-gun candidate, Trump likely tapped into an upswing in support for anti-gun measures in the wake of the Parkland massacre that included 53 percent support from Republicans for new gun laws.
Trump's surge in popularity plateaued in the first days of March. This immediately followed his February 28 meeting in which he promised his support to congressional Democrats for a laundry list of gun control measures, making Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) giddy with anticipation. It was also at this meeting that Trump said, “Take the guns first, go through due process second,” prompting a backlash from conservative gun owners that could explain the abrupt halt in his rising approval.
At this point, President Trump's overall approval rating has been flat since the beginning of the month. His surprise announcement of tariffs on March 1 did little to move his approval rating in either direction. Polling showed that voters were roughly split into thirds over the plan with 40 percent approving, 35 percent opposing and 25 percent with no opinion. It is ironic given the free-trade and anti-tax history of the GOP that 65 percent of Republicans favored the new taxes on trade compared with 25 percent of Democrats. The real test will come after tariffs are implemented and begin to have an effect on the economy. Reaction from other countries and the possibility of a trade war will also impact Trump's approval.
In spite of the headlines, President Trump's approval rating appears to have recovered from a summer slump and is near its historic average. The reasons for the surge are not necessarily a reason for conservatives to celebrate. Part of Trump's approval is due to the quick success of the tax reform bill, which is a vindication of conservative economic principles. On the other hand, the president also got a quick boost from embracing liberal positions on gun control and the NRA. After discarding his pro-gun position so easily in the face of falling poll numbers, conservatives should be concerned about the future.