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Trump Was Never Very Popular, But How Will Americans View Him (And Biden) Now?


Welcome to Pollapalooza, our (mostly) weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

On a very basic level, one big reason why President Trump lost reelection is that he wasn’t very popular. As of Nov. 3, his job approval rating was just 44.6 percent, and his disapproval rating was 52.6 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval average. That -8.1-point net approval rating was the third-lowest of any recent president on the day they stood for election to a second term. (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were the only two other presidents to go into Election Day with a lower net approval rating, or higher disapproval rating, than Trump’s.) Notably, all three lost.

Unpopular presidents usually lose elections

Recent presidents’ average approval and disapproval ratings on Election Day of the year they ran for another term

President Year Won Election? Approval Disapproval Net
Lyndon B. Johnson* 1964 74.0% 15.0% +59.0
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1956 67.9 19.1 +48.8
Richard Nixon 1972 61.3 28.6 +32.7
Ronald Reagan 1984 57.9 33.0 +24.9
Bill Clinton 1996 54.6 38.6 +16.0
Barack Obama 2012 49.5 47.1 +2.4
Gerald Ford* 1976 43.6 41.3 +2.3
George W. Bush 2004 48.4 47.5 +0.9
Harry S. Truman* 1948 39.6 45.5 -5.9
Donald Trump 2020 44.6 52.6 -8.1
Jimmy Carter 1980 37.9 54.8 -16.9
George H.W. Bush 1992 32.6 55.5 -22.9

*Acceded to the presidency mid-term.

Source: Polls

Part of this boils down to the well-documented relationship between a president’s approval rating and his ability to win another election. Hugely popular presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan cruised to a second term, while divisive but still net-popular ones like George W. Bush and Barack Obama won in squeakers. In fact, the only recent president to lose his bid for a second term with a positive net approval rating was Gerald Ford in 1976. (That said, he had a fairly weak approval rating — just 43.6 percent, lower than Trump’s on Election Day in 2020. A relatively high share of Americans had no opinion of him, which may have made it easier for his opponent, Carter, to win them over.) That means the only president with a negative net approval rating to win a second term was Harry S. Truman in 1948 — an election still upheld as one of the most shocking upsets of all time.

Trump is setting a dangerous precedent for American democracy

That said, a president’s approval rating is hardly the last word. Elections, after all, are a choice between (at least) two candidates. But in the case of 2020, it looks like President-elect Biden was indeed more popular than Trump, at least according to Biden’s favorability ratings. (Favorability ratings and approval ratings aren’t quite the same thing, but they are pretty close.) And according to an average of favorability polls conducted during the week before Election Day, Biden had a 51.0 percent favorability rating and a 43.9 percent unfavorability rating, for a net favorability rating of +7.0 points. Meanwhile, Trump’s average net favorability rating in those same polls (-10.8 points, or 43.1 percent favorable vs. 53.9 percent unfavorable) was slightly worse than his net approval rating.

Americans viewed Biden pretty favorably

Polls of Joe Biden’s favorability and unfavorability ratings conducted up to a week before Election Day

Dates Pollster Fav. Unfav. Net
Nov. 2-3 McLaughlin & Associates 52% 45% +7
Oct. 31-Nov. 2 YouGov/The Economist 51 48 +3
Oct. 29-Nov. 1 Léger 47 45 +2
Oct. 29-Nov. 1 Change Research/CNBC 50 44 +5
Oct. 28-Nov. 1 Quinnipiac University 49 42 +7
Oct. 29-31 Morning Consult 52 46 +6
Oct. 29-31 NBC News/The Wall Street Journal 45 42 +3
Oct. 27-29 Fox News 55 44 +11
Oct. 27-29 Gravis Marketing 59 38 +21
Oct. 27-28 Harris/Harvard 50 45 +5
Average 51.0 43.9 +7.0

When one poll released favorability numbers among multiple populations, we used the group most likely to vote — for example, we preferred samples of likely voters over samples of registered voters. Only the last iteration of the Morning Consult tracking poll is used.

Source: Polls

Since elections essentially boil down to a popularity contest, the fact that Biden was better-liked than Trump on Election Day probably helped him win where Hillary Clinton (who was as unpopular as Trump in 2016) lost. Biden may have had an easier time winning over voters with a low opinion of Trump simply because fewer of them had a low opinion of him — a problem that doomed Clinton.

What might happen to Trump’s and Biden’s popularity from here? Historically, new presidents have enjoyed a honeymoon phase where they become better-liked shortly after winning the election and taking office. And according to a couple new polls, Biden’s may already have begun. According to a Gallup poll of American adults out this week, Biden’s favorable rating is now 55 percent — 6 points higher than it was in late October and the highest it has been in that survey since before he announced he was running for president. And last week’s Morning Consult/Politico poll gave Biden a 57 percent favorable rating and a 41 percent unfavorable rating among registered voters — a vast improvement over his +6-point net favorability in their last pre-election survey together, in late October.

[Related: Why Polling Has Gotten So Hard]

That said, not all pollsters are picking up on this. Biden’s net favorability rating is just +2 points among registered voters in last week’s YouGov/The Economist poll, barely changed from their final pre-election survey. And Harris/Harvard put his net favorability rating among registered voters at +6 points the week before Thanksgiving, basically the same as they found right before the election. So we need more data before we can safely proclaim that Biden’s honeymoon is underway — especially since honeymoon periods may be increasingly elusive in this era of high partisanship.

As for Trump, presidents often become more popular once they leave office and people start viewing their tenures through rose-colored glasses. It’s too soon to say whether that’s going to happen with Trump; his approval rating has hovered steadily in the 44-45 percent range since Nov. 3. That said, 44-45 percent is among the highest approval rating he has achieved over the last four years — so a handful of people who didn’t approve of his job performance for most of his presidency do approve of it now. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues, especially if he runs again for president in 2024.

Other polling bites

  • With the promise of a coronavirus vaccine finally on the horizon, a new SurveyMonkey/Fortune poll finds that 40 percent of U.S. adults want to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. However, another 39 percent said they want to wait a while before getting it, and 19 percent said they never want to get the vaccine. Republicans (30 percent) and Black Americans (25 percent) were especially likely say they would turn down the vaccine.
  • In Ipsos’s latest coronavirus survey, conducted the two days before Thanksgiving, 62 percent of Americans said they were canceling their typical holiday travel plans, and 66 percent said they were doing more holiday shopping digitally this year.
  • We at FiveThirtyEight were glued to the election results as they came in about a month ago, and it turns out we weren’t alone. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 36 percent of Americans say they followed the results of the election “almost constantly,” while another 34 percent “checked in fairly often.” Twenty-two percent said they “checked in occasionally,” while only 7 percent “tuned out entirely.”
  • A Nov. 17-19 survey by Harris X/The Hill found that 60 percent of registered voters support Biden canceling up to $50,000 of student debt per person — something that prominent Senate Democrats are reportedly pressuring him to do via executive order.
  • A new poll from Research Co. has found that Americans disagree, 58 percent to 33 percent, with a proposal to lower the federal voting age to 16. However, they agree, 64 percent to 27 percent, with letting legal permanent residents (i.e., green-card holders) vote.
  • While 2020 is a year that few people will remember fondly, Americans are at least optimistic that 2021 will be better. According to a recent YouGov survey, 48 percent of adults think 2021 will be a better year for them personally than 2020 has been; 28 percent think it will be about the same, and only 9 percent think it will be worse.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 43.6 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.8 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.2 points). At this time last week, 44.1 percent approved and 52.6 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -8.5 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 44.6 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.1 points.

How to make polls better | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast



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