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Should We Assume Trump’s Poll Numbers Will Stay Stable?

May 10, 2018

A relatively simple, empirical question: If a president’s approval ratings are stable early in his term, does that tend to imply that they’ll also be stable later on? In other words, is it safe to assume that Trump’s approval ratings will continue to vary only within a narrow range from the high 30s through the low 40s, given that that’s what’s happened so far?

The short answer is no, that is not a safe assumption. There are several presidents whose approval ratings were steady early in their terms — not quite as steady as Trump’s, but steady — but then became volatile later on.

Trump’s 8-point approval-rating range is the narrowest of any president to this point in his term. The previous record-holder was John F. Kennedy, whose range spanned between 72 percent and 82 percent, a 10-point spread. Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower also had narrow approval-ratings ranges in their first 500 days; to a lesser extent, so did George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

But three of these presidents experienced significant volatility in their ratings later on in their terms — and in all cases, they wound up worse off for it:

  • Nixon’s approval ratings remained steady throughout the rest of his first term, presaging his landslide re-election over George McGovern in 1972. But they began to crash at the beginning of his second term as Watergate went from a slow-burning background scandal to an acute political crisis.
  • Johnson won in a landslide in 1964, having had extremely steady (and high) approval ratings while filling out the remainder of Kennedy’s term. But he began to encounter problems very early in his second term as a result of a backlash against his handling of the Vietnam War and, in parts of the country, against his civil rights agenda.
  • George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings weren’t quite as steady as Nixon’s or Johnson’s or Trump’s, but they trended within a relatively stable range between 56 percent and 74 percent in his first 500 days. They became highly volatile thereafter, however, first spiking as a result of favorable public reaction to Operation Desert Storm and then falling all the way into the 30s by the middle of his failed re-election bid in 1992.


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