“A watched pot is slow to boil.” That phrase, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, typically means that some things seem to happen more slowly when watched closely.
Those who cover and comment on President Donald Trump watch few things more closely than his job approval ratings, and many have noted the apparent stability of those numbers in the face of a chaotic summer of breaking news. Despite the recent “roller coaster of events,” RealClearPolitics’ David Byler writes, “Trump’s job approval has hovered around the 40 percent mark for over two months, almost never deviating by more than one percentage point.”
This past week may mark a new turning point. SurveyMonkey’s most recent weekly tracking poll found Trump’s approval falling to 39 percent, the lowest level we have measured to date. Daily tracking polls conducted by Gallup and Rasmussen Reports have also hit or matched new lows, so Trump’s numbers may be turning further downward after a lengthy plateau. Or this past week may be prove to be a momentary aberration.
But setting these most recent numbers aside, the reality is that perceptions of Trump have been changing – perhaps ‘evolving’ is a better word – only at a very slow rate. The president’s overall approval rating has declined slightly through his first six months, sliding the most among moderate to liberal Republicans, and doubts are rising about his ability to keep promises and get things done.
Let’s start with overall approval. The chart belows shows the polling averages for Trump’s approval rating since he took office, aggregated by HuffPost Pollster and FiveThirtyEight, along with SurveyMonkey’s own Trump approval measure for the same time period. All three have been stable since February, but indicate a slight long term erosion (click here for more on why SurveyMonkey’s approval and disapproval numbers are slightly higher than the poll averages).
In particular, all of the trend lines show a small but persistent decline in Trump’s ratings that occurred during the first two weeks of May. That downturn coincides with the passage of the American Health Care Act (ACHA), the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare on May 4 and Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey on May 9.
As Byler and others have speculated, much of that stability evident in Trump’s ratings over the past six months owes to the intense partisan polarization about the president and politics generally. Specifically, SurveyMonkey’s tracking shows Trump maintaining 83 percent or better approval from Republicans, but less than single digit approval from Democrats.
Here too, however, are signs of a small but persistent dip in Trump’s support starting in early May. They may amount to just a few percentage points in each subgroup, but the downtick is evident among Republicans, independents and Democrats (because SurveyMonkey’s tracking reaches 40,000–60,000 respondents per month, these small changes within subgroups are statistically significant).
A more intriguing pattern emerges when we combine party identification with respondents’ self-reported ideology. The same slight decline in early May appears among both conservative Republicans and among Democrats who are both liberal and moderate.
Among moderate to liberal Republicans, however, the pattern is different: a slow but steady erosion of a few points per month, from 80 percent in February to a new low of 73 percent in July. (Our most recent weekly tracking poll, covering July 21 to 28, showed a more precipitous drop to 67 percent approval among moderate to liberal Republicans, though that result may reflect greater noise from a smaller sample). Moderate to liberal Republicans represent roughly a third of all who either identify or lean Republican.
A second and possibly overlooked change comes from more specific judgments about Trump. Since February, we have periodically asked respondents to indicate which of nine personal characteristics and qualities they would apply to President Trump. The can select “all that apply.”
Since April, Trump’s scores on all of the traits have declined slightly, paralleling his overall decline in approval. The decline has been notably steeper, however, for two traits:
- “Can get things done,” down 10 percentage points (from 38 to 28 percent) since February)
- “Keeps his promises,” down 12 points (from 31 to 19 percent).
Meanwhile, the percentage of adults who indicate that “none” of the positive characteristics and qualities applies to Trump increased from 41 percent in February to 49 percent in late July.
As we noted in February, the “get things done” characteristic is particularly important, since it helped define what Trump’s softest supporters like most about him (along with his perceived toughness and willingness to “stand up from what he believes in”).
An anti-Trump pot may not be ready to boil, but over the last six months, it has started to simmer.