World·Analysis

Trump is more popular than ever, but there's more to the story

Donald Trump is enjoying his best poll numbers ever. His opponents may fume in frustration, but the public gives the U.S. president decent marks for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Here are four takeaways on what those poll numbers say, what they don't, and what's next.

4 takeaways from a mid-crisis polling spike for the U.S. president

U.S. President Donald Trump, seen here wearing a campaign cap during a meeting to discuss the pandemic at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta earlier this month, is seeing the best polling numbers of his presidency. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via The Associated Press)

Sorry to the haters, doubters and slack-jawed disbelievers: Donald Trump has the highest approval ratings of his presidency. 

The barrage of criticism he's faced in the media over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis does not erase the fact that he's getting decent marks from the public.

He's closer than ever to cracking the 50 per cent mark in public approval. 

Trump took a pause Friday from dealing with this deadly, economy-pulverizing pandemic to tweet his thanks to a journalist who pointed out his poll numbers.

As the president often does, he insisted his real support must be much higher than what's in the media. "Add 10 points!" he tweeted. 

Needless to say, you can't arbitrarily add 10 points to a survey and call it statistically sound. But here are a few things we can definitely glean from the polling so far.

Trump has more support than ever

Trump had a 47.3 per cent average approval rating, according to an aggregate of surveys compiled by the website Real Clear Politics. The closest he's ever come to 50 per cent support was right after his inauguration in 2017.

Trump's approval ratings, in black, and disapproval, in red, over the last year on the site Real Clear Politics, which calculates averages from contemporary polls. (realclearpolitics.com)
  

Some surveys even show him with more public approval than disapproval for the first time, though most don't.

Yet he's still in political danger

Still, most polls show his ratings slightly underwater, with the Real Clear Politics average showing two per cent more disapprove of his leadership (49.3 per cent) than approve.

The other bad news for Trump involves the general election. He's beaten his likely opponent, Joe Biden, just one time in 24 head-to-head national polls listed on the site this year. 

Of course, U.S. elections are fought state by state. What the swing states show is a close race, with some challenges for the incumbent.

Trump has been a bit behind in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and a bit ahead in Florida. There's less data from Ohio, and it's mixed. An additional challenge for Trump is, entering this crisis, he was trailing Biden in the Republican-leaning states of Arizona and North Carolina.

There is another important point to be made, since any talk of U.S. presidential polling inevitably draws complaints that pollsters got it wrong in 2016, and Trump himself habitually claims his true support is much higher than published figures.

It's this: the national polls were not wrong in 2016. 

In fact, they were close to bang-on. The Real Clear Politics average missed the 2016 result by one percentage point. Same for Florida, and to a lesser extent in Pennsylvania

But they were wrong where it mattered most in 2016: at the state level, in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Surveys in those key states were way off.

Leaders poll well in a crisis

Leaders are getting strong public support in this crisis — it's happening throughout the U.S., and in lots of other places.

Look at the results from one Fox News poll. It asked respondents to rank the performance of various figures in the U.S. Everyone got good marks — and everyone else polled better than Trump. 

Seventy-seven per cent approved of the job done by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; local officials got 75 per cent; state governments 74 per cent; Vice-President Mike Pence 55 per cent; and Trump 51 per cent.

The federal and provincial governments in Canada are getting high marks for their handling of the crisis, with approval ratings mainly in the 60s and, in the case of Quebec Premier François Legault, way higher. One survey showed 93 per cent support for Legault's performance.

France's unpopular president, Emmanuel Macron, has gotten a bounce, with polls showing him gaining as much as 14 per cent during the crisis. Italy's governing party is polling better, too.

Warning to all of them: this kind of mid-crisis polling can prove to be the political equivalent of a sugar high.

History shows that a president can achieve sky-high support in a crisis, and see it crater quickly in a bad economy. These are the approval numbers for George H.W. Bush from the Gallup polling company, which showed a peak after the successful invasion of Iraq and quick collapse that cost him re-election. (Gallup)

Take George H.W. Bush, who had an approval rating around 90 per cent after winning the first Gulf War in 1991 but lost re-election the following year. A soft economy quickly pulled his Gallup approval down as low as 29 per cent.

His son, George W. Bush, also reached 90 per cent approval after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and narrowly won re-election three years later.

Democrats regroup

The handling of this crisis will be litigated for decades to come. It's still very early in the debate, and there's no telling what turn it will take in the seven-plus months until election day.

Some Democrats sound disheartened on social media, venting their frustration that Trump is being rewarded by the public for what they see as catastrophic leadership.

They argue that he's repeatedly messed up basic facts; picked petty fights; downplayed the need for new ventilators one day, then treated it like a national emergency the next; disbanded a pandemic task force; and wasted precious weeks telling the country this crisis would never hit.

With presidential campaign events sidelined by the pandemic, Democratic contender Joe Biden has changed his routine, speaking to media via a video feed from his house. He's been tentative in criticizing the president. (Biden for President via The Associated Press)

Trump's reply: He was quick to close the border to China, then did the same with Europe as the crisis spread. He's also signed a second massive economic-rescue bill.

He's also declared a national emergency, put the military on guard, and used emergency powers to order General Motors to make ventilators. (The company says it was already working on it.)

Amid all this, Biden has kept a relatively low profile. Biden's team has been debating whether it's advisable to criticize Trump too strongly amid a national crisis. 

But the Democratic advertising machine is starting to unload on the president. In Facebook ads, and in TV ads.

The largest Democratic super PAC is running an ad in different states showing a rising number of coronavirus cases over a period of weeks where Trump downplayed the crisis.  

The Trump campaign warned stations they could lose their broadcasting licence for running the ad — the president's campaign lawyers argue it is misleading.

The Democratic group responded by saying it would buy more ads.

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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