Commentary: A Hard Look At Trump's 'Bump' In The Polls

Apr 3, 2020

It may seem crass to be thinking about presidential approval ratings in the middle of a deadly pandemic that is sweeping the country. But be assured of one thing: The occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania has spent his share of time thinking about them.

Last week, many in the corps of political pundits were writing – sometimes breathlessly – of a small bump upwards in the job approval ratings of President Donald Trump.

It was driven, they say, by the president's handling of the coronavirus crisis; and there was much speculation that it might signal a turnaround in Trump's chances for re-election this fall.

I'm not so sure.

I tend to rely on history as my guide in such matters, and the history in this case is not necessarily a good omen for Trump.

The website RealClearPolitics.com (RCP) does an excellent job of compiling polling from around the country and averaging it out for head-to-head matchups and approval ratings. It took nine polls on Trump's overall job approval and came up with an average of 47.7% in approval.

That 47.7% was on March 30. Less than two weeks before that, on March 19, Trump's approval rating was at 44.2%.

So, yes, there was a modest bump of 3.5 percentage points.

Polls that looked at public opinion of how Trump was handling the coronavirus crisis were a bit better – 50% approval in the RCP average. That was somewhat odd, in that, up until the past week, Trump was in full denial mode, telling Americans that this was no worse than the flu and would disappear overnight, "like a miracle."

At long last, Trump came to the realization that the "no problem here" approach was being overtaken by stark, brutal facts about people dying of COVID-19.

Throughout this entire crisis, it has been governors who have led the way in battling the pandemic – governors like Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio and Democrat Andy Beshear of Kentucky. And their efforts have often been thwarted by inaction or outright indifference from the administration in Washington.

I have yet to see job approval ratings for DeWine and Beshear, but I am guessing they are pretty high.

Two Democratic governors whom Trump clearly despises – New York's Andrew Cuomo and Washington State's Jay Inslee – are running circles around Trump when it comes to job approval.

Cuomo has a 71% approval rating in the latest Siena poll, while Inslee comes in at 67% in a Survey USA poll.

The fact is that the American people tend to rally around the president in times of national crisis.

Trump came into this crisis with an incredibly polarized electorate – two sides dug in and unwilling to compromise. He can blame himself for creating much of that atmosphere.

It's an atmosphere that explains why his "bump" from his handling of the coronavirus crisis is so small.

While it is true that this present crisis is unlike any other, presidents in fairly recent times have benefitted far more in terms of their popularity than Trump.

They both happen to be named Bush. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Or Bush 41 and Bush 43, as they are known.

After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, seemingly the whole country gathered around Bush 43, and he showed some leadership skills that many once believed the former Texas governor did not possess.

His approval rating soared to slightly above 90% in the months after 9-11 – an astounding number. In today's political atmosphere, it is hard to imagine 90% of Americans agreeing that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.

Bush had to face re-election in 2004. By then it was a completely different story.

Gone was the 90% approval rating. Bush ended up squeaking by to win a second term with 286 electoral votes – 16 more than he needed. If Ohio had not gone his way by a narrow margin, Democrat John Kerry would have been elected president.

Bush 43's father showed even more dramatically how quickly popularity could fade.

In 1991, Bush 41 was soaring in the polls with an 89% approval rating after a swift and decisive defeat of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces in Operation Desert Storm.

But, by 1992, that near-unanimous support had faded away, and Bush 43 found himself fighting for his political life against not one but two opponents – Democrat Bill Clinton and billionaire H. Ross Perot, who had formed his own third party.

It proved to be too much for Bush 41. On Election Day, Clinton made him a one-term president and his 89% approval rating was a distant memory.

The moral of the story?

Trump may be able to pull off a win in November, but it is going to take more than an ant hill-sized bump in his approval rating to guarantee that.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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