Sometimes, politics makes perfect sense.
When an incumbent American president is running for reelection, the best predictor of success or failure is his, or one of these days, her, job approval rating.
This does not mean a president has to fool all the people all the time. George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 with just 48 percent of American voters approving his work in office, but no incumbent president in the polling era has won with anything less.
One indication of what a political tightrope Donald Trump has been walking is that his absolute highest approval rating as president was 49 percent, achieved earlier this year in January and February, and as recently as March 22.
It was about that time that most people awoke to the menace of a Coronavirus outbreak out of control and started to see that the president was in vigorous, useless denial.
About a week later approval for President Trump had dropped three points, to roughly the same 46 percent of voters that had gotten him elected in 2016, while his disapproval level was 49 percent and rising.
For the president’s reelection campaign those were the good old days. His approval scores have been in free fall since, to 40 percent towards the end of June, while disapproval rose even faster to 56 percent.
If the overall popular judgment of the Trump presidency is pretty harsh, many significant details look even more devilish, or in his case, anti-devilish.
A big driver of Trump’s election victory in 2016 were White people with no college education. Polling in 2020 shows the president still has majority support, but the same gender gap seen across the voting public splits less-educated White voters. Women are less enthusiastic about the president than are men, by the same 10 percentage point difference as in 2016. But both of those figures – 56 percent support from working class White women versus 66 percent for men – are down five percentage points from 2016.
And now there is a generation gap.
Non-college educated White people under 40, like their parents and grandparents, prefer Trump over Joe Biden, but – again – by about 10 percentage points less than the over 40s. And when it comes to judging the president on issues of competence, leadership and character, the young less-educated voter is likely to score the president 20 points lower than their elders.
Remember, this fracturing of support is occurring among what was in 2016 one of Donald Trump’s keystone cohorts of voters. In itself, this is seriously bad news for the Trump team, but far worse is that these trends – softening support overall, and something closer to voter flight among women and younger voters – seem to be strengthening across all classes.
William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a Senior Fellow. Galston is the author of nine books and more than 100 articles in the fields of political theory, public policy, and American politics. His most recent books are Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (Yale, 2018), Public Matters (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), and The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2004). A winner of the American Political Science Association’s Hubert H. Humphrey Award, Galston was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.
Galston has appeared on all the principal television networks and is frequently interviewed on NPR. He writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal.