Trump and the politics of crisis

Covid-19 may be hogging all the space in the headlines, but politics doesn’t go away. The United States will still go to the polls in seven months time to elect a president, and what happens to the world in the following four years will be very heavily influenced by whether or not Donald Trump wins re-election.

I won’t bother trying to convince you that Trump is absurdly unqualified to be in charge of the world’s most powerful nation at a time of crisis: I’ll just take that as a given. But it doesn’t follow that the crisis will hurt his chances of re-election.

We know that a president’s public approval often spikes at times like these, regardless of their personal qualifications or responsibility. George W. Bush was one of the worst people to have running the country when it was attacked on 11 September 2001, but his approval ratings still skyrocketted as a result. John F. Kennedy’s ratings jumped after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, even though he had ordered it himself.

So, is there evidence for Trump enjoying a similar boost? There is, but the story is complicated.

To see what I mean, have a look at the graphs of approval ratings compiled by FiveThirtyEight. You can compare Trump’s score throughout his term to that of other presidents going back to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

Trump is distinctive in two very obvious ways. Firstly, that his approval is so low: no other first-term president has been below 50% approval for so long. Most of them rarely if ever dropped to a level that for Trump has been routine.

Second, in that it has been so consistent. Following his inauguration, Trump’s approval rating dropped quickly to the high 30s, then recovered slightly, and for the last two years has remained steady within the range of about 40% to 43%. Every other president has shown more volatility, often much more.

It’s in that light that the last fortnight’s worth of polling needs to be understood. Trump’s approval rating has risen to (according to FiveThirtyEight’s rolling average) 45.8%, its highest point since his opening weeks in the job. His disapproval rating has fallen to 49.7%, the first time it has been below 50% in more than three years.

But compared to the gains and losses that other presidents have experienced, those movements are very small. A comparison with other world leaders shows the same thing. There is much more underlying volatility, and most of them have recorded a much more substantial boost than Trump.

When people describe Trump as a polarising figure, this is part of what they mean: that most people have made up their minds about him and are not likely to change. But it also seems to be a characteristic of modern American politics. Barack Obama’s ratings were not quite as poor or as stable, but they were more like Trump’s than those of any other recent president.

So a boost of a few points for Trump may in its own way be as dramatic as a much larger boost for one of his predecessors, since there are so many fewer uncommitted voters to start with.

The question then is, will it last? Often they don’t; Kennedy, for example, shed all of his Bay of Pigs gain in a couple of months. George Bush senior reached then-unprecedented heights of approval after the liberation of Kuwait, but still lost the election the following year.

Democrats seem confident that Trump’s incapacity will ultimately doom him. As former presidential contender Howard Dean (as quoted by Politico) puts it:

It was always going to be a referendum on Trump … But the referendum was going to be about things like climate change and how you want to reform health care and all these other things. Now it’s only going to be about this one thing — whether Trump is competent and sane.

Seven months is a long time, and the way the crisis plays out could still have a much more dramatic effect than anything we have seen so far. But at this point the evidence is that the election will play out in a deeply and evenly divided country, with a small number of votes making the difference between victory and defeat.

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