By Patrick Murray
Fact 1: Donald Trump’s job rating is at an all-time high.
Fact 2: Donald Trump has not received the same approval “bump” as past presidents in a crisis.
Recent shifts in the president’s job approval have been met with “either alarms or fist pumps,” as one reporter put it to me. But we really have to keep this in context. We have become so accustomed to the fact that Trump’s numbers never move all that much, that we accept that as the norm. The current crisis is just an exceptionally stark example of that.
To put this in perspective, if this were any other president, we would expect job ratings to have swung almost instantaneously by at least 10 points. George W. Bush got a nearly 30 point bump after 9/11. John F. Kennedy saw a double-digit hike in his already high ratings during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even Jimmy Carter got a 25 point bump in 1979 when Americans were taken hostage in Iran.
In Monmouth’s polling, Trump’s approval rating is only 2 points higher than where it was one month ago, before the pandemic really spread in the country. And for context, his current rating is 3 points higher than two months ago in the midst of his impeachment trial, and 5 points higher than six months ago, when the impeachment process was just getting underway. Monmouth’s numbers track consistently with the average of all polls.
The scale of these shifts means that we end up trying to discern significance from infinitesimal amounts of evidence. I am not saying that these small movements cannot be consequential. When the country is as evenly divided as it is now, they most certainly can be the tipping point for political change. What I am really trying to say is that is it very difficult to explain the reasons for these shifts at the microscopic level of detail many observers want. That’s because standard public opinion polls are not the right tool for the job. They are more like magnifying glasses than microscopes.
Let’s take the recent shift in Monmouth’s poll numbers as an example. The one major change we saw in Trump’s job rating was that approval among Democrats went from 6% last month to 11% now. The numbers for Republicans (91%) and independents (44%) stayed exactly the same. Now, the fact that the latter groups were exactly the same in the poll does not mean they are exactly the same in reality, because of the potential margin of error in the poll sample. It’s just that we know they did not move as much (if at all) as the Democrats.
A five percentage point movement among a group that makes up about a third of the population is microscopic in polling terms. Absent a sample size in the tens of thousands, we just don’t have the ability to examine this group with any level of precision. In real terms, this shift may represent about 3 or 4 million adults across the country. In polling terms, this equates to approximately 15 respondents in a sample of 850).
It is likely that this group had a range of reasons for changing their opinion. For some it was probably movement from soft disapproval to soft approval for a specific thing Trump had done. For others it may be aspirational.
There’s a body of literature about the psychological need to rally around a leader in times of crisis, which is why the bigger research question for a student of public opinion is why that effect isn’t bigger right now rather than finding explanations for the few people who have become more positive toward the president.
Part of the explanation is certainly down to Trump’s inability to project a more inclusive, non-partisan persona as well as a steady hand on how his administration is tackling this situation. Part of the explanation is the failure of opposition leaders to signal to their followers that they should get behind the president (which admittedly is difficult for them to do as Trump’s rhetoric continues to lambast those who don’t show due deference to him).
Basically, the current times are blowing away a lot of the political theories about what typically happens in a time of crisis. And that, to me, is the more important public opinion story right now.