Donald Trump’s approval ratings have been moving down again over the last three weeks, and on Tuesday he finally broke through to a new low of 37.8 percent approval in FiveThirtyEight’s daily estimate, just a bit below the previous floor at 38.0 percent.
The other polling aggregators tell much the same story; the RealClearPolitics average has him at 39.2 percent and just above his all-time low, while the Huffington Post estimate is 38.7 percent approval, a low. Disapproval has spiked up, to a Trump high of 56.7, according to FiveThirtyEight; the other aggregators tell much the same story.
Using the FiveThirtyEight numbers, the new low — which might turn out to be a one-day fluke — ends an 11-week string in which his approval floated between 38.0 and 39.9 percent, giving new ammunition to those analysts who believe that partisan polarization gives Trump a high floor. Indeed, RealClearPolitics’ David Byler published a perfectly fine item Tuesday morning speculating about why Trump’s approval was so stable.
And perhaps it will be. On other hand, Trump’s approval has been sliding within that stable range for the last month, and now has broken through the bottom of it. Or, to zoom back a bit, it seems just as likely that Trump has been falling all along and we just didn’t see it because there’s a lot of noise both in the very short term effect of day-to-day events, and in the polling itself.
Just as likely, that is — it certainly is still possible Trump is trapped in a narrow approval band and Tuesday was just an illusion.
But I don’t think so. I continue to see a lot of hand-waving, but no solid evidence that recent presidents have any different floor (or ceiling, for that matter) than did Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. I don’t think Barack Obama was propped up by partisan polarization; I think his approval ratings stayed in a narrow band after the first few months (and they did) because of the events of his presidency.
Look, neither side can prove anything at this point. But it sure seems strange to me to believe that we’re in a world with low ceilings and high floors for presidential approval, even though George W. Bush had the record-large approval range over the course of his presidency, while Trump is once again the least-approved-of president at this stage of his career ever (just edging Gerald Ford in approval, but well below everyone in net approval). And net approval (that is, approval minus disapproval)? Trump’s current total, a dismal -19 percent, is worse than the worst figures ever achieved by Obama, Bill Clinton, Ford, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, and he could easily dive below Ronald Reagan’s worst later this week.
As an approximate rule of thumb, anything under 40 percent is what gets Republican governors and senators to start thinking about taking family vacations in Iowa and New Hampshire; anything below 30 percent makes a serious nomination challenge a strong possibility. Not to mention the damage it will likely cause for the Republican Party in midterm elections.
There’s still plenty of time to reverse things, but don’t dismiss how bad things are for Trump right now.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.