If you follow polling you know that over the last couple weeks President Trump’s approval numbers have been trending up. The differences are small. But even small differences measured in aggregate make a difference. If the President is at 43% approval on election day and gets near around that number he’s defeated. If it’s 46% or 47% victory is possible and even likely. Small differences over time count.
538’s composite average has notched up a couple points over the second half of January and this morning Gallup released the highest approval rating of Trump’s presidency: 49%.
Why is this happening?
The most straightforward and daunting answer is that he is getting more popular. The economy continues to be buoyant with unemployment numbers the lowest we’ve seen in decades. The President has inked two trade agreements. They may be thin (in the case of Trump’s repackaged NAFTA) or in the case of China more fairly described as defeats. But the news is success even if the reality falls short. Finally, as we discussed yesterday, much of Trump’s transgressive behavior has become increasingly normal and acceptable to a large minority of the population.
This is daunting and sobering given the consequences of President Trump being re-elected.
But there is another plausible explanation. Pollsters call it differential response. When one side gets enthused or energized their numbers go up but in an ephemeral fashion. The pumped-up side is a bit more eager to answer the phone or fill out the survey. The demoralized side is a bit less eager. This is a real and demonstrated phenomenon, not just a concept or speculation. It’s not necessarily an error per se in the polling. It’s picking up something real. It’s just ephemeral.
One example many of us likely remember came after the first general election debate in 2012. President Obama turned in a stiff and disconcertingly flat performance. The consensus was that Mitt Romney won the debate and for the first and last time in the cycle Romney briefly pushed into the lead.
There are good reasons to think that at least some of that is happening today — the President’s impending acquittal and Republican unity have been the driving news of the last two or three weeks. Republicans are energized and enthused by the certainty of President Trump’s acquittal. Many Democrats are demoralized by seeing an overwhelming and exacting case made for the President’s guilt and seeing it simply not matter.
We’ll only know once impeachment is over and all of this has a chance to settle. I’m pretty confident that at least some of this is ephemeral differential response. But I am not confident that’s all of it. We just don’t know and won’t know for a while.