DONALD TRUMP IS not happy about his poll numbers.
Earlier this week he tweeted that “if the totally Corrupt Media was less corrupt, I would be up by 15 points in the polls based on our tremendous success with the economy, maybe Best Ever!”
What is most surprising about this latest social media missive is not the president’s contemptible attack on the free press (that’s par for the course). It’s that Trump is not completely wrong in pointing out that he isn’t getting credit for an economy that while not “Best Ever” is firing on all cylinders.
According to a recent Quinnipiac national poll, 71 percent of Americans consider the economy today to be either excellent or good. More than half the country reports being better off today than they were in 2016. And yet the same poll gives Trump an abysmal approval rating of 38 percent. An Economist/YouGov poll has similar results — with 70 percent saying the economy is good, 53 percent approving of Trump’s handling of the economy, but just 42 percent approving of his overall job performance.
But Trump’s low approval numbers are not the result of biased media coverage. No, they’re really about the nation’s increasingly rancorous partisan divide.
More than any point in recent political history, Americans are separated by their political affiliation. Democrats are more likely to hold highly unfavorable views of Republicans — and vice versa.
There is less overlap between their political views; fewer voters are willing to cross party lines; and nearly half of Republicans would be displeased if their children married a Democrat. (Among Democrats, a third would be upset by such ideological apostasy.)
These adversarial divisions are transforming the nation’s politics. For most of modern American history, the president’s approval ratings were closely tied to voters’ economic perceptions. If times were good, they gave the president credit; and if they were bad, he got blamed. But that iron law of politics is no longer holding — and it’s not just about Trump.
During the Obama years, the president’s approval ratings consistently lagged voter attitudes about the economy — and the biggest reason was partisanship. By the tail end of Obama’s presidency, Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to say they were better off financially compared to the previous year. In fact, Republicans making more than $100,000 a year said they were less satisfied with the state of the economy than Democrats who made below $20,000 a year.
This partisan gap has little to do with ideology — and a lot do with skin color. For decades, partisan identification has been a by-product of racial identification. If you were white, you were more likely to be a Republican; if you were a person of color, you probably called the Democratic Party home. During the Obama years that process intensified — and has continued during Trump’s presidency. Today, in American politics it’s no longer “the economy stupid,” it’s “the identity stupid.”
This is both a positive and negative for Trump. On the one hand it explains the inexplicably consistent support that he has continued to receive from his base of voters, no matter what he does. On the other, it’s also why he’s been unable to win over many voters who aren’t already supporting him.
Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Trump’s presidency — from a purely political standpoint — is how stubbornly consistent his approval ratings have been. The problem for Trump is that they’ve been consistently bad, rarely inching much above the low 40s.
All this suggests that we need to rethink our usual political assumptions, particularly the one that suggests if the economy is doing well an incumbent president is a solid bet to win re-election. No matter how strong the economy is in the fall of 2020, it’s far from clear that Trump can use good economic news to overcome the nation’s intense polarization (which he, of course, has so mightily contributed to). Attitudes about him are so baked into the electorate that there’s little he can do to change them — not that he’s shown much inclination to try.
It also suggests that the Democrats’ obsession with electability may be misplaced. In an era of such extreme partisanship, the 2020 election is more likely to come down to mobilizing those already inclined to vote against Trump than persuading the dwindling number of voters who are on the fence, or coaxing the president’s supporters to vote for a Democrat. The fever of partisanship that has defined our current political moment is not going away anytime soon — and neither are the country’s ugly political divides.