WASHINGTON — Amid the gravest challenge of his presidency, public opinion polls have delivered some good political news for President Donald Trump: a small uptick in his approval rating, in some cases to the highest levels of his tenure.
Polling experts say even a small upward movement for Trump is meaningful, but they add caveats: His bump is smaller than presidents typically get during national crises; it lags that of other political leaders and it’s still early to measure the views of his performance amid an unpredictable, sweeping crisis likely to play out for months.
Trump’s polling has been remarkably stubborn throughout his presidency, stuck within a narrow range and suggesting that attitudes about the president are fairly fixed, seemingly no matter what is happening in the world. That’s why even relatively small recent movements in numerous polls have caught attention.
“For there to be any change I think is notable, and I think this is a significant positive change,” said Carroll Doherty, the director of political research at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. His poll, concluded March 24, showed a 5 percentage point increase in approval for Trump since January — up to 45% (though more people still saw Trump’s work negatively than positively).
“While it’s not large ... it is statistically significant and it brings him right back to where he was in March 2017, in the early months of his presidency,” Doherty said.
And they are the first measurement of how voters view his handling of a crisis that appears likely to shadow the country for months to come, and therefore the 2020 election.
“Unlike other presidents before him, he has a high floor and a low ceiling,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. So for Trump to get into positive territory overall “is like a landmark for him. Those are phenomenal numbers for him.”
With the election expected to be so close, even a small increase in support could ensure victory for Trump, if it holds, Newhouse said.
Yet some analysts argue that the bigger story is about the bump that hasn’t happened.
“If this were any other president, we would expect job ratings to have swung almost instantaneously by at least 10 points,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling institute, wrote on his polling site. “George W. Bush got a nearly 30-point bump after 9/11. John F. Kennedy saw a double-digit hike in his already high ratings during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even Jimmy Carter got a 25-point bump in 1979 when Americans were taken hostage in Iran.”
Murray’s latest poll, concluded March 22, found a 2 percentage point increase in Trump’s approval.
National crises frequently produce a “rally around the flag” effect in which voters give more favorable marks to national leaders — though Gallup noted that has faded as politics have become more polarized. Barack Obama saw just a 7 percentage point bump, for example, after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden.
While Trump has seen a modest increase in job approval, others have soared. Gov. Andrew Cuomo saw his favorability in New York leap by 27 percentage points, to 71%, according to the Siena College Research Institute.
Other leaders such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson have also seen much bigger gains than Trump, according to the polling outfit Morning Consult.
“Compared to other crisis approval bumps for others leaders in the current period and in the past, it’s quite small” for Trump, said Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster who is working with Priorities USA, a super PAC airing ads attacking Trump for downplaying the coronavirus.
Typically, the rally behind a crisis president comes from voters in the opposing party, who express a surge of support for a leader they usually disagree with. Democrats, for example, gave a huge boost to Bush’s approval after 9/11. New York Republicans now see Cuomo, a Democrat, overwhelmingly favorably.
Trump’s gains are largely coming from a small share of Democrats who now see him in a better light. In Monmouth’s poll, Trump’s approval among Democrats grew from 6% to 11%. That’s a small percentage of one slice of the electorate showing a shift, “microscopic in polling terms,” wrote Murray, of Monmouth.
What all five experts interviewed agreed on was that polls at this moment might not indicate much for the president’s reelection chances.
A polling rise is obviously better than a potential collapse given the human and economic catastrophe now unfolding. But polls don’t predict what comes next, and the coronavirus outbreak is an unusually volatile situation whose real-life consequences are only starting to be felt.