In One Respect, Trump Is a Lot Like Obama

For the first two years of President Trump’s administration, Democratic Party press outlets would recite, ritualistically, that he was a historically unpopular president. We haven’t seen much of that lately. In fact, for most of his first term Trump has been as popular as Barack Obama was during his first term. You can see that graphically in this Rasmussen Reports chart:

During Obama’s first term, his approval rating was usually under water, and his “Approval Index”–the difference between strong approval and strong disapproval–was generally worse than Trump’s. Obama’s marginal approval ratings, driven by unpopular policies like Obamacare and the faux stimulus, were one reason I was convinced that Mitt Romney would win in 2012.

But a funny thing happened: as the 2012 campaign got under way, Obama’s approval rating inched upward. By the time of the election, it was significantly positive. Then, once the election was over, it subsided again and remained under water for most of Obama’s second term.

At the time, I puzzled over why this happened. I think the most likely explanation is that in the middle of a presidential term, when pollsters ask voters whether they approve or disapprove of a president, respondents are comparing the president to a theoretical alternative. If it is easy to imagine how a president might be better, or more in accord with a voter’s own views, the respondent is likely to tell the pollster that he disapproves.

This changes once the president is running against a specific opponent. Now, a voter who is asked whether he approves or disapproves of a president is more likely to say he approves if he likes the incumbent better than the nominee of the other party. Also, during an election campaign voters more often see the president speaking for himself, as opposed to seeing news stories that are likely to be framed negatively. This probably helps, too–and it undoubtedly helps Republicans more than Democrats, since substantially all news stories about Republicans are written by Democrats.

If this analysis is correct, it bodes well for President Trump in 2020. Once the Democrats nominate an opponent, whether the dim-witted and geriatric Joe Biden or the socialist Elizabeth Warren, or perhaps a lesser figure, voters’ choices will be sharpened. I think quite a few more Americans who may not like Donald Trump’s style will be willing to say they approve of him if the alternative is Biden, Warren, Harris, etc. And Trump is a highly effective campaigner. Those who see him campaigning, if only in the news, will think more highly of him, on average, than when they only see news stories written by Democrats.

So if the strongly parallel history of Barack Obama’s first term is a guide, Trump should be re-elected in 2020.