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Opinion | Diane Hessan

Happy about Trump’s low approval ratings? Not so fast.

President Trump, during a meeting with Vice Premier Liu He of China, at White House, Jan. 31.
President Trump, during a meeting with Vice Premier Liu He of China, at White House, Jan. 31.(Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

In the last month, Democrats have a new sense of optimism. President Trump’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, with just 32 percent of Americans viewing him favorably. The government shutdown, the lack of progress on major issues like health care and infrastructure, and his most recent tweets about his intelligence team have doubtless contributed to the slump.

Meanwhile, eight dynamic Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election have emerged with a sense of hope and energy. Laura, a Democrat from California, is elated: “My co-workers and I have a countdown clock for how many more days Trump will be in office, and we are going to party when it goes below 500.” Carly, a Democrat from New Hampshire, explains, “I am just so happy that in two years, this Trump disaster will be a thing of the past.”

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Many Republicans are fed up with Trump, too. Chet is a Republican from Indiana who voted for Trump in 2016. “I even voted for him in the primary,” says Chet. “To me, he was a breath of fresh air, someone with a business background who would cut the waste in D.C., and who would know how to get things done.” Now Chet is disillusioned. “Maybe I should have voted for Clinton,” he says. “Trump is a total loose cannon, our deficit is up, and his staff is a bunch of thugs. Mostly, I feel embarrassed at what he has done to our stature around the world.”

So things look pretty grim for Trump in 2020, right?

Maybe not. According to my panel of 500 voters, disillusionment with Trump doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for the Democratic nominee.

Chet, for example, admits he might vote for Trump again in 2020. Right now, he looks at the Democratic field and sees mostly candidates who he perceives are from the extreme left. Despite how he feels about our president, he tells me that he is still a Republican, in favor of smaller government, fewer regulations, and hard work. “I can’t see myself voting for free health care, free college, and free rides, and that would make me run from most of the new faces,” he says.

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Suzy, a Republican from Ohio, agrees. “While I voted for Trump, let me assure you I do not agree with everything he does and certainly not everything he says. Having said that, if the election was held today, against any one of the announced or presumed to announce candidates, I’d vote him in again. You know the old adage, ‘Dance with the devil you know.’ ”

As I speak weekly to my group of voters, I am struck by how many Republicans are dissatisfied with Trump. On the other hand, just being unhappy doesn’t mean they are abandoning him completely.

For instance, some Republicans — and moderate Democrats — might like the idea of Medicare for all, but they don’t believe we can afford it in light of all of the other investment priorities in our country from infrastructure to climate change. “I am not happy with Trump,’’ says Cindy, an independent from Massachusetts who voted for Trump, “but between the unrealistic spending proposals from left-wing Democrats and the recent late-term abortion legislation in New York, I think the Democrats have gone off the deep end.”

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“I was pretty optimistic with all of the new blood,” says Tom, a Democrat from North Carolina. “However, when Michael Moore announced that the leader of the Democratic party is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a recent college grad who says she is a socialist — I realized we are in trouble.”

The 2020 elections are a long way away, but it’s urgent for the Democratic Party to formulate its message about what it stands for. Focusing on a more leftist agenda will require energizing millions of new voters in red and purple states. A platform built on big tax increases, expanded government programs, and political correctness might energize primary voters but flounder in the general election. Alternatively, the party could move more to the center to engage with moderate voters who are sick of Trump but who will vote for him rather than vote for a Democrat they believe is too radical.

What’s clear is that when someone says, “I don’t approve of Trump,” that doesn’t mean he or she will suddenly run to the alternative. Instead, as in 2016, voters are ready to hold their noses, reject a nobly fought Democratic campaign, and move Laura’s countdown clock back to another 1,400 days.


Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.