President Trump’s rocky first months in office haven’t much bothered his voters. At least, not yet.
Yes, there have been lots of stories from the Rust Belt about stirrings of discontent among the Trump faithful. But those are mostly anecdotal and so far data – meaning polls – don’t back that thesis up.
For instance, in a big new Pew Research survey fully 92 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Mr. Trump has done as well or better than they expected. Only 7 percent say he’s done worse.
What this means is that Trump’s base remains intact. In turn, his ability to lead and pressure the GOP-controlled Congress probably does too. After all, Congress as a whole is less popular than he is. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s job approval rating, in that same Pew poll, is an abysmal 29 percent. That low number could damage Representative Ryan’s ability to drive any upcoming tax reform effort.
But Republicans haven’t yet become a populist-tinged Party of Trump. Chaos matters. The administration’s flopped travel ban is still stuck in the courts. Obamacare remains, stubbornly, unrepealed. Tax reform is receding into the distance. Trump’s GOP backing might dwindle as well.
“His support even among Republicans is a mile wide but an inch deep,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Of course, many Democrats can’t believe that Trump’s standing in the GOP remains as solid as it is. To them, his administration has been a rolling disaster, a circus of misstatements and poorly planned initiatives.
You can see this in Gallup’s rolling daily average of Trump’s general job approval rating. For the week of April 10 to 16, only 10 percent of Democrats gave a thumbs-up to Trump’s performance as president. That’s a historically low figure, even by today’s partisan standards. And it was an improvement from the previous week, when the comparable figure was only 6 percent.
The view from Logan, West Virginia
In contrast, Trump’s job approval among Republicans for the week of April 10 to 16 was 87 percent. That’s comparable to the support past presidents had from their own party at a similar point in their administrations.
"He's trying his best," says Loletta Evans, who's been a waitress for 34 years at Morrison's Drive In in Logan, West Virginia. "They are fighting him tooth and toenail, but he is trying. Of course, I do pray for him every night ... I would like to see him do good and I think his heart is in the right place."
Ms. Evans, a septuagenarian who has lived in Logan all her life, says that in her view, Congress and the Senate need to stop fighting the president's initiatives. "If they want to turn this country around, they're going to have to get together."
Trump’s overall job approval ratings are quite low, especially for a chief executive who’s been in office only a few months. But as the above split shows, that’s not due to widespread opposition. It’s due to intense disapproval from the other party (and, to a lesser extent, independents).
The contrast with Speaker Ryan
Those ratings are higher than Paul Ryan’s, however. If the struggle to be titular head of the Republican Party were a battle of numbers – and to some extent it is – than the president would beat the speaker. Ryan’s positive job approval is 29 percent, versus almost twice as many, 54 percent, who disapprove of the job he’s doing.
To some extent that rating may come with the position. Congress as an institution isn’t popular, and the House Speaker is the personification of Congress. But it is also something of a referendum on Ryan. His predecessor John Boehner had better numbers at a similar point in his own speakership. So did Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Even Newt Gingrich, the Republican firebrand House leader, had somewhat better poll ratings in 1995, according to Pew.
Ryan may just be suffering an image letdown. For years he’s positioned himself as a legislative whiz-kid who could pass big, meaty bills if given unified control of Washington. In his first chance, with the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he failed badly. That’s inevitably going to damage his ability to frame any upcoming tax reform debate, vis-a-vis the White House.
“The Obamacare debacle made him look feckless, at best,” says Dr. Engel at SMU.
For his part, Trump may have run as an outsider, a populist beholden to no one in the establishment wing of the GOP. But rank-and-file Republicans are now the bedrock of his political support. That includes the prototypical Trump voter – a white male without a college degree – as well as other demographic categories of party members.
So if Trump’s standing in the Republican Party slumps even a modest amount, the result on his overall numbers could be dramatic. And there are some warning signs. The just-released Pew poll shows somewhat bipartisan concern about Trump’s decisionmaking process, for example. About 30 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents judged it “too impulsive.”
And continued problems with his agenda could well cost Trump some GOP erosion in the months ahead.
The president’s problems with Congress are only going to continue, judges Engel. Trump has just passed through the easiest portion of his administration – the first part of his first term – and has missed picking even the low-hanging fruit, in this view. The travel ban was badly mishandled, the Obamacare non-repeal even more so. As a candidate who ran partly on a promise to be a great dealmaker, Trump has proved remarkably unable to strike any agreements at all, even with different factions in his own party.
“I’d put the vast majority of blame on Trump himself,” says Engel.
Will Trump's pivots hurt his popularity?
That said, there are some signs Trump is learning in office, Engel adds. That’s a valuable trait for a chief executive. His foreign policy seems increasingly mainstream GOP, despite his campaign promises to get NATO allies to pay up and to confront China on trade.
Will that make GOP voters happy – or do they really expect an “America First,” inward turn? The answer to that question could help determine Trump’s popularity, and by extension his ability to maneuver in Washington, over the rest of his first year in office.
Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report from West Virginia.