Trump is at Peak Popularity

We know Democratic primary voters are prioritizing defeating Donald Trump. At least that’s what they tell pollsters. We know there’s a new controversy, perhaps an impeachable one. The president has admitted telling a foreign leader to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden and more than implied that yes, the release of a financial aid package was linked.

This seems like a really good time to see how the country feels about the guy in the White House. Nancy Pelosi has spent the last several months holding off the part of her caucus that has yearned to begin impeachment proceedings.

Her resistance was predicated on a few things:

First, the Democratic majority in the House rests on districts that voted for Trump in 2016, but a Democrat in the 2018 midterms. Without those members, she can’t impeach, with them, she could become a one-term speaker.

Second, even if Democrats voted to impeach in the House, it requires two-thirds in the Senate to convict. That’s not going to happen, especially with several GOP senators facing primary challenges for 2020.

Third, Trump was viewed as very beatable in 2020. Why take the risk when you could just vote him out, retain the House, and ideally win the Senate too (would just take a 50/50 tie with a Dem president.)

Impeachment wasn’t favored by a majority of the public. Key swing district representatives weren’t on board. Never Trump current and ex-Republicans were not advocating. The only GOP House member to support impeachment was Justin Amash, who left the party soon after.

Pelosi and other D.C. veterans remember 1998. Newt Gingrich and the GOP House decided to impeach Bill Clinton. Democrats won a net five seats in a midterm election that normally punishes the incumbent party. In their minds, the strategy was clear. Wait it out. Vote him out.

The Ukraine stuff changes this. The Never Trump center-right thinks this is beyond the pale. Several swing district Dems announced they’re open to impeachment proceedings. The AOC wing would have huffed and puffed and attempted to blow Pelosi’s speakership down if she’d continued to resist.

Unlike the Russia controversy, which covered many actions that occurred before Trump was elected, this is something that happened on an open call with several witnesses, while he was well in to his presidency. It’s not very complicated. Either he, and/or one of his representatives (cough, Rudy Giuliani, cough) made investigating a domestic political opponent a condition of financial aid. Or not.

If it happened, it’s likely provable. If it’s provable, the House, and if they impeach, the Senate can decide if this is worth removing Trump from office for or not. They can move quickly, as Republicans did with Clinton. He could be acquitted or convicted before the Iowa Caucus.

While all hell is breaking loose, Trump is at his most popular since March 2017. Guessing you weren’t thinking that. Know I was surprised. Real Clear Politics keeps a comprehensive chart of presidential approval polling. Any well-known entity that frequently polls on this is included.

His current weighted approval is 44.9%, disapproval 52.3%. That’s not great. But it’s a lot better than when he was -20 in late 2017. You’ll hear how other presidents were in a similar position to where he is now and wound up with positive ratings by their re-election day.

Those presidents had far more elastic approval ratings. It’s hard to see how Trump gets himself above 50%. While many presidents were more popular on re-election day than 12 to 18 months out, none were more popular than their best numbers from after the inaugural honeymoon was over. They simply got back to a level they were previously at.

We know Trump doesn’t need a 50% approval rating to win. He didn’t have one on November 8, 2016. He needs 44 or 45 percent. Higher forties would be even better. An election with Trump is like avoiding a bear in the wilderness. You don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be quicker than your companion.

Trump doesn’t have to be popular, just more popular than his opponent. And right now, he’s at a number where you could envision him competing with a wounded version of one of his current leading challengers.

What about Ukraine? Well, there’s a new Emerson poll. It was taken from 9/21 to 9/23, after the story broke. Trump is +1 approval, 48/47. You can break presidential approval pollsters into two groups:

Rasmussen Reports

Everyone Else

Rasmussen always scores Trump higher than any other survey taken at a similar time. We’ll find out next November if they’re catching something the others are missing, but for now, just remember, that’s where his favorability is always highest. Always.

Emerson is only the second non-Rasmussen pollster to give Trump a positive result since March 2017. USA Today found him at +1 back in June. That’s it. Two favorable scores in 30 months.

RCP also linked to Rasmussen’s most recent results, from 9/22 to 9/24, also covering the Ukraine cycle. Trump is at +4. That’s his best number in any survey taken at any time since the second month of his presidency. Even Rasmussen has only shown a positive number in 11 out of the past 130 weeks.

Going along with the idea that a roughly neutral Trump would be tough to defeat, Emerson shows him within the margin for error with Biden and Warren, and ahead of Sanders and Harris. Again, this is the September 2019 version of those candidates, not November 2020 after a bruising primary and non-stop bashing from Trump.

Given the narrow range his approval moves in, a few point improvement is a lot. It appears Ukraine is helping so far. I don’t have any other guesses to why he’d be doing better right now.

If so, why?

We know roughly 40 percent of the country has consistently approved of his performance. This doesn’t mean they’re with him do or die. In order to separate that, we’d need to see how his support holds up in a recession. But given good economic performance, these voters are all with him.

We know close to 50 percent of the country flat hates him. No matter how good the economic news, or anything else he does, they disapprove in every survey. Who are the remaining 10 to 15 percent who do not always answer the same way?

It looks like they really don’t like the Swamp. And they don’t like when Trump looks like a loser. When he tried to overturn Obamacare and lost, his numbers cratered. When he steered into the shutdown and needed to cave to Pelosi and Schumer, his numbers plummeted.

Losing battles with congress have wounded his approval more than anything. For the past week, Trump has been gleefully defiant. He’s daring Pelosi to impeach him. He’s angering the elites. With Never Trumpers coming around on impeachment, he has all of his desired enemies lined up together.

To one audience, the idea that a president would blackmail a foreign leader into doing his bidding in a domestic campaign is beyond the pale. To another, Trump is admitting something they think others have done before, and enjoy seeing he’s willing to do anything to win.

This sets up a horrible series of choices for Pelosi. If she eventually quashes the impeachment inquiry, without scheduling a vote, it looks weak. Trump wins, and is emboldened to go further over the next year. Meanwhile, her caucus goes into full rebellion. That’s not going to work.

If she impeaches, but the Senate doesn’t convict, Trump declares victory. The Swamp went after him to protect Biden, and he survived. It’s the political equivalent of double jeopardy immunity. He can do whatever he wants in 2020, with the knowledge Pelosi would have to risk losing a second, third, fourth time.

Public opinion could shift during the inquiry or an impeachment hearing. But unless it shifts so far that Republican senators don’t fear losing a primary, conviction is very difficult. If the seemingly impossible happens, and Trump is booted from office, how strong do Biden, Warren, or Sanders look against Mike Pence or Nikki Haley?

There’s a difference between the country being ready for Democratic Socialism if four more years of Trump is the alternative, than if Haley is. Warren is nowhere near the country’s center. Biden’s age is a much bigger issue against an opponent who isn’t almost the same age.

Keep in mind, this is Pelosi’s best case scenario. Well, second-best. A noticeable economic downturn beginning in mid-2020 would be best for her interests. Everything I’m saying is predicated on Trump having a good economic record to run on.

What James Carville said back in 1992 is still true. When it comes to getting rid of Trump, it’s the Economy, stupid.

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