NDN Blog

Analysis: Trump Is The Least Popular First-Term President Since WW2

This piece was originally published on May 1st, 2019 and was updated with the latest polling data on August 7th, 2019.

Since the midterm elections last November, perceptions of Trump's popularity have swung rapidly as highly visible controversies such as the government shutdown and the release of the Mueller Report and Barr Summary have unfolded. Over the next few weeks, I'll take a look at some interesting developments in the polling, including Trump's popularity, the Democratic presidential primary, and the general election in 2020, and will comment on important take-aways from the data.

To start, how popular is Trump right now? While much of the conventional wisdom still portrays the President as a strong figure, the reality is that he continues to be by far the most unpopular first-term President in the modern era. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump today sits at a -10.9 net approval rate. How does this compare to previous Presidents? Firstly, the lowest net approval rate that either Obama or George W. Bush hit during their first 2.5 years in office was -4.5, so Trump is dramatically lower than his immediate predecessors. Secondly, looking at all 11 Presidents since 1953, net approval at this point in their first term averaged +17, so Trump is almost 30 net points worse than his predecessors (and this average isn't skewed by potential problems with polling several decades ago - the average net approval of just Obama, Clinton, and both Bushes at this point in their terms was +16.8). Finally, let's look at how often Presidents over the past 60 years have experienced the type of heightened disapproval that Trump sees today. From Eisenhower until Obama, looking only at the first 2.5 years of each President's first term, Presidential net approval has been at -10 or worse for a total of 164 days (or just 1.5% of the time). By contrast, Trump has been under -10 net approval for 765 days (or 82.3% of the time).

In the 2018 midterm elections, this dramatic level of disapproval (-10.4 net on November 8, 2018 compared to -10.9 today) led to Democrats winning the popular vote by the largest margin of any midterm since 1986. Also within that midterm victory was a significant rejection of Trump by almost all of the emerging demographic groups that will form an increasingly large share of the US electorate in years to come, especially non-white and young voters. This trend has only accelerated since election day. According to Civiqs polling data, Trump today has a -36 net approval rate among voters under age 35, and is -48 among Latino voters. Similarly, the Republican Party currently has a net favorability rate of -43 among under 35s and -55 among Latinos, whereas the Democratic Party is -4 among under 35s and +20 among Latinos. This represents an enormous decline since 2004, when George W. Bush actually won voters under 45 and lost Latino voters by only 9 points. 

While much of the media continues to hold up Trump as a powerful political figure who can conjure up electoral victories out of nothing, in fact he continues to be the most unpopular first-term president in over six decades and is leading Republicans down the path of the California GOP by ignoring those demographic groups that will over the next decade become more and more critical to winning elections.  Indeed, the future for Republicans in critical battleground states looks grim, with voters under 35 disapproving of Trump by a net 38 points in Pennsylvania and 28 points in Florida. Even in solid red states, Trump is losing the argument with the next generation of voters, with net approval among under 35s at -26 in Texas and -22 in Mississippi.

Trump's Trade War With China Has Failed Spectacularly, And It Now Might Bring Down The Global Economy

Over the past week, the reality of the trade war's failure to achieve any of its goals in reforming the Chinese economy has become clear to Trump. After meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Shanghai, Lighthizer and Mnuchin informed the President that China was unwilling to make any of the structural reforms that they sought on intellectual property, forced technology transfers, and state subsidies to exporters. Even worse, China had largely backtracked on their "promise" at the G20 to increase purchases of US agricultural exports that Trump had touted as a major victory. After 18 months of the trade war and the resulting decimation of US agriculture, sharply reduced American exports, and rapidly slowing manufacturing growth, what does Trump have to show for his efforts? Nothing at all. 

The question now is how does Trump respond to this failure, and will he be willing to take the American and global economies to the brink of recession in an attempt to keep one of his signature campaign promises. Last Thursday, Trump went against the advice of all of his economic advisers when he announced the imposition of new tariffs of 10% on $300 billion of Chinese exports, a move which has sent the S&P 500 down almost 5% over the past 5 days. He has also continued to threaten to raise these new tariffs from 10% to 25%, a move that Morgan Stanley forecasts would lead to a global recession within 9 months. And with China on Sunday moving to devalue their currency and end all purchases of US agricultural exports, it is very possible that Trump could retaliate in a way that leads to global economic chaos.

Weekly Notes On The Economy is a weekly column that NDN writes on the most recent economic news, policy, and data.

New Study Shows America Embracing Free Trade, Rejecting America First

We and others have been arguing that Trump’s "America First" policies have failed, from both a governing and political standpoint. A new study from Pew released today reinforces this view and shows another dramatic rejection of Trump’s fundamental argument about America and the world. When asked their view of trade, Americans overall said that free trade agreements between the US and other countries were a good thing for the US by a resounding 43 percentage points (65-22). This represents a dramatic shift from 2017, when Americans supported free trade agreements by just 2 points (45-43), and illustrates how the public as a whole has now rejected the protectionism of the Trump administration.

This repudiation of Trump's trade policies has occurred across party lines, with Republicans even supporting free trade by a 30 point margin today (59-29) after opposing it by 34 points (29-63) in 2017. Democrats in particular have become a fundamentally pro-trade party, saying that free trade agreements are good for the US by a 58 point margin (73-15), itself a significant increase from two years ago when Democrats were in favor of free trade by 30 points (59-29).

The failure of America First has also shown up in recent polling on immigration, as a rising number of Americans say that immigration and immigrants are good for the nation.  A recent example comes in this week’s Quinnipiac poll, which found that Americans think immigration has been good for the country by an astonishing 53 point margin (70-17).

You can find more from us challenging the President’s misguided trade policies in this series of essays; and more from us challenging the President’s immigration policies in this backgrounder

Friday's GDP Report Illuminates Trump's Broken Promises On The Economy

Last Friday's Q2 GDP report probably did more to expose the failures of Trump's economic agenda than any other piece of economic data in his Presidency. First, growth for the quarter came in at 2.1%, far below the White House's annual projections of 3%. To hit 3% for 2019, growth in the second half of this year will have to average around 3.4%, something extremely implausible given current estimates are at just 2%. Second, economic growth in 2018 was revised significantly downward, from 3% to 2.5%. As a result, the economy last year never came close to hitting Trump's promise of 3% growth, even with a $1.8 trillion tax cut for the rich. Finally, business investment came in negative for the second quarter, and was revised significantly lower for 2018, further dismantling Trump's promise that the tax cut would spur a surge in investment. Instead, the trend in business investment has actually fallen since the tax cut went into force in early 2018. 

What has been the long-term result, then, of Trump's economic agenda of tax cuts, tariffs, and deregulation that was promised to lead to 3% annual growth every year into 2028? Quite simply, nothing. Growth has averaged 2.1% over the past 3 quarters, and is projected by the Fed to be 2.1% for 2019 as a whole and 2% for 2020, a little bit slower than the 2.3% annual average during Obama's second term. The only difference is that Trump has ballooned the budget deficit, from $580 billion in 2016 to over $1 trillion projected for this year, to give handouts to the rich all the while trying to strip healthcare and food stamps from the poor. 

Weekly Notes On The Economy is a weekly column that NDN writes on the most recent economic news, policy, and data.

Simon In Richard Clarke's Future State Podcast On "The Future Of Hacking Democracy"

We’re very excited to share with you that Simon’s discussion with former National Security Council Special Advisor Richard Clarke, titled The Future of Hacking Democracy, is now available for your listening pleasure.  Drawing from his experience running a countering disinformation operation for the DCCC in the 2018 election cycle, Simon talks about what Russia did in 2016, new trends and threats we've seen in the past few years, and what steps we should be taking now to prevent foreign governments and domestic actors from manipulating our elections and discourse.  Big thanks to Richard for being a gracious host. You can listen to the discussion on “The Future State” podcast here (please select Episode 20). 

ASDC Resolution on Protecting our Elections from Foreign Manipulation

The following is the text of a Association of State Democratic Committees (ASDC) resolution that passed unanimously on June 15th in Santa Fe.  A PDF of the official resolution is below. 

Resolution on Protecting Our Elections from Foreign Manipulation

Whereas in 2016 the Russian government launched an extensive attack on America’s democracy and the Democratic Party and its leadership in particular;

Whereas the current Administration has not taken sufficient steps in these past 2 ½ years to protect our elections, our candidates, our political parties and our discourse; and

Whereas America’s intelligence services have warned that Russia and other nations are likely to attempt to manipulate our elections and discourse once again in this current election cycle; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the Association of State Democratic Committees (ASDC):

  1. Urges the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to establish a new party-wide framework which would discourage and prevent the use of the kind of illicit campaign tactics used by Russia against our party in 2016 in the 2020 elections; 
  2. Recommends this framework seek to discourage and prevent hacking and the use of hacked or stolen materials; discourage and prevent the use of disninformation tactics including, but not limited to, the use of fake social media accounts, fake websites, bots, trolls, troll farms, deep fakes and any use of falsified images, video or audio;
  3. Endorses efforts by Senator Ron Wyden and FEC Chairwomen Ellen Weintraub to protect our elections from cyber-attacks, including by allowing national party committees to use monies from the Party’s building funds to provide cybersecurity assistance to campaigns and state parties;.
  4. Encourages a new party wide commitment regarding the reporting illicit activity discovered from any source to the proper authorities, the social media platforms and the DNC; and to discourage the use of these tactics by supporters, allied groups and institutions and consultants.

Mover: Tina Podlodowski, Chair, Washington State Democratic Party

Seconder: Raymond Buckley, Chair, New Hampshire Democratic Party

Historically Low Poll Numbers, Slowing Economy Endangering Trump’s Re-Election

This piece was originally published on Medium.

A year and a half before the Presidential election, Trump’s electoral position looks precarious to say the least. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump currently stands at a net approval rate of -11.6, and he hasn’t been better than -8 since March of 2017. Of the 12 Presidents in office since 1945, only 1 has had a negative net approval rate at this point in their first term — Jimmy Carter — and we know how that turned out. By contrast, Obama was at +1.5 in May of 2011, and he went on to win in 2012 by the still relatively modest margin of 3.9 percentage points.

Crucially, and even worse for Trump, this extremely poor level of approval has taken place while the economy has been strong. By the 1980 election in which Carter lost by 8.3 percentage points, the economy had entered a recession and unemployment was near 8%. By contrast, Trump inherited an economy with 4.8% unemployment and job creation of over 210k/month, and that strength has largely continued to this point. What this means for Trump, however, is that he is probably getting the largest boost from the economy to his approval rate that he will get — that is to say, he is at his high water mark in the polls right now. Furthermore, as the economy weakens, it is likely that voters who approved of him primarily because of the economy will grow more likely to oppose him. It could be devastating to his electoral chances in 2020, therefore, that the economy seems to have begun a sharp deceleration over the past several months (something that the conventional wisdom is only now beginning to acknowledge).

First, the economy in the first quarter of this year was never close to as strong as was commonly assumed. This misconception was based upon two very strong headline reports (3.1% GDP growth and 3.6% unemployment) whose underlying data was actually quite poor. The headline GDP number came in strong because two temporary, one-off factors (inventories and net exports) gave big boosts to the economy in Q1. However, these boosts will not happen again for the rest of the year, and the fact that they were large in Q1 will actually cause them to subtract from growth in Q2-Q4 (as businesses reduce their inventories after a big build-up for example). In fact, the core components of GDP — consumption and business investment — grew at their slowest rate since 2013, illustrating that the fundamentals of the economy were weak. Similarly, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in 60 years in April not because more people were employed, but because 490,000 people dropped out of the labor force. According to the household survey that is used to calculate the unemployment rate, 103,000 fewer people were employed in April than in March, and 300,000 fewer people were employed in April than in December 2018.

Second, the deceleration in the economy has become very clear with the release of new economic data for April and May. Three key reports that look at the fundamentals of the economy — retail sales, industrial production, and business investment — all came in very weak in April. Retail sales, a good proxy for consumer spending, fell for the 3rd time in the past 5 months while industrial production grew at its slowest rate since February 2017. Capital spending, a good measurement of the level of investment by businesses, declined to its lowest overall level since June 2018. And this data was all compiled before Trump increased tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10% to 25%, and threatened tariffs of 5% on all Mexican imports. This rapid escalation of Trump’s trade wars with China and Mexico starting in mid-May has clearly affected the economy, and has turned already weak April numbers into extremely poor May ones. For May as a whole, services activity fell to its lowest level since early 2016 while manufacturing activity cratered to levels not seen since 2009. Furthermore, job growth fell significantly, expanding by only 75,000 jobs in May compared to the 2014–18 average of 215,000 jobs per month. Finally, consumer confidence took a sharply negative u-turn after the imposition of the tariffs in mid-May, which will likely weaken consumer spending in the weeks ahead.

Overall, then, the economy has clearly taken a dramatic turn for the worse over the past few months, something that is now starting to be reflected by the conventional wisdom in the markets and media. The Atlanta Fed and New York Fed now project Q2 GDP growth to be an average of only 1.2%, while Goldman SachsJP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley see an average of just 0.9% growth. Similarly, the Fed’s preferred metric for forecasting recessions — the yield curve — is now at its flattest point (meaning the highest probability of recession) since 2007. And the economy is likely to only get worse in the coming weeks. The most important risk factor for a further deceleration is Trump’s trade wars, and conflicts with China, Mexico, and Europe all look unlikely to abate anytime soon. With China, negotiations have come to a complete standstill and Chinese state media has become far more hostile to the US in recent weeks, meaning that the chance of a deal is extremely unlikely. Furthermore, as of this morning the White House has said that Trump still intends to impose the 5% tariffs on Mexican imports, and the complete lack of progress in trade talks with the EU means that the chance of a 25% tariff on auto imports from the bloc is increasingly likely. As these conflicts continue unabated, the risk of a full-blown recession only increases. Indeed, Morgan Stanley’s economists last week forecast a global recession if Trump escalates his trade wars any further.

What does this mean for Trump and his chances of re-election in 2020? Very simply, it could mean that the President suffers a major defeat in 2020, if not an early primary challenge late this year. According to Ipsos polling from mid-May, Trump has a positive approval rate on just 2 out of 14 policy areas — his handling of the US economy (+5) and employment and jobs (+12). His average approval on the other 12 areas is -13, including -12 on healthcare, -12 on trade, -13 on taxation, and -11 on foreign policy. If the economy falters and his approval on those metrics falls in line with his broader popularity, the GOP could face a landslide defeat next year. As it is right now, Trump is the most unpopular first-term President in the postwar period, but depending upon his actions towards China, Mexico, and Europe over the next few months, things for him could get a whole lot worse.

Trump Is Leading The Economy Into A Substantial Slowdown

Over the past week, new economic data has painted a picture of a rapidly decelerating US economy. In April, industrial production grew at its slowest rate since February 2017, retail sales declined for the 3rd time in the past 5 months, and capital spending fell by 0.9% to its lowest overall level since June 2018. And this data was compiled before Trump increased tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10% to 25%. Since then, the numbers have gotten even worse. In May, US manufacturing production fell to its lowest level in 9 years while overall business activity fell to its lowest level in 3 years. Meanwhile, growth projections for Q2 GDP have fallen rapidly, with the Atlanta Fed, the New York Fed, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley all seeing growth under 1.5% this quarter. Indeed, the Fed's preferred metric for forecasting recessions - the yield curve - is now at its flattest point (meaning the highest probability of recession) since 2009. Trump's trade war, and recent significant increase in tariffs, has played a large role in this slowdown. Export markets have dried up for American farmers and manufacturers, investment has declined as firms face significant uncertainty, and higher costs for consumers and producers alike have caused output to slow. You can find more of NDN's analysis on why the economy is currently worse than conventionally believed here. As well, you can read our work detailing the failures of the President's tax cut here and his trade policy here

Weekly Notes On The Economy is a weekly column that NDN writes on the most recent economic news, policy, and data.

Invite: Thur, July 18th - "Patriotism, Optimism"

Over the past year or so Simon has been making a big argument about the past and future of the center-left in America.  Called "Patriotism and Optimism," it makes the case that America is not in decline and is in fact doing as well as it has in any point in its history. It is meant to be an explicit rebuttal to the core argument Trump is making about America and its decline, an argument which is malevolently selling America and its people short every day. 

This primary way this argument has made itself into the world is through a 45 minute long Powerpoint deck, which has been seen in dozens of showings over the web and live in person to policy makers here in Washington and around the country. Our next showing of the deck will be Thursday, July 18th from 12:00pm to 1:15pm at our new offices at 800 Maine Avenue SW, Washington, DC. Lunch will be served. You can RSVP for the event and learn more here. For background before the showing, feel free to check out some related readings below.

Key Background Readings On "Patriotism and Optimism"

The Case for Optimism: Rejecting Trump's Poisonous Pessimism, Simon Rosenberg, Medium, 6/2/17. In an essay that originally was published on Medium, Simon argues that the great rationale of Trump's Presidency  –  that America is in decline – simply isn't true, and must be challenged more forcefully.  This is the piece that spurred the creation of the presentation. 

Chin Up, Democrats, Simon Rosenberg, US News and World Report, 1/20/17. In his column Simon argues that Democrats should have pride in their historic accomplishments and optimism about the future of their politics. This one is very relevant to the presentation itself. 

A Center-Left Agenda for the Trump Era - Simon Rosenberg, US News and World Report, 12/9/16.  In the early days after Trump's election Simon layed out a possible agenda for the Democrats centering on prosperity, security, shoring up the American led liberal order and ambitiious efforts to reform our political system. 

Additional Readings

Some Thoughts On the Caravan - By Simon Rosenberg, Medium, 10/24/18.  The Caravan, composed of 7,000 poor, unarmed, mostly Honduran Central Americans, poses no threat to the US, and illegal border crossings continue to be way down. Some thoughts on what Democrats should do to respond to Trump's farcical attacks and terrible policies.

Are We Better Off Under Trump? The Short Answer Is No - By Simon Rosenberg and Chris Taylor, NDN, 10/18/18.  Most measures of the US economy are worse today than when Trump took office. Worse still, the President’s policies have made it very challenging to manage the next recession or global economic downturn.

Challenging Trump's Tariffs - An Ongoing Series - By Chris Taylor, 10/17/18.  In a new series challenging Trump's tariffs, we argue that the President's trade policy is illegal, recklessly ignorant, damaging to the US economy, and historically unpopular. Congress must step up and rescind them in the coming months. 

Trump's Immigration Strategy Is Failing - By Simon Rosenberg, NBC News, 8/6/18.  Almost nothing the President has done on immigration and the border has worked; expect more extreme policies as the elections approach. 

Congress Must Debate The Weakening of Global Order - By Simon Rosenberg, NBC News, 5/10/18.  Few presidents have inherited a world or a nation in which more was going right. Trump seems determined to undo it all.

The Pernicious Politics of Oil - Simon Rosenberg, US News and World Report, 12/16/16.  Petro-powers are challenging the global order, and the next president seems uninterested in stopping them.

An Enduring Legacy: The Democratic Party and Free and Open Trade - Simon Rosenberg, Huffington Post, 1/24/14.  The global system created by Presidents FDR and Truman has done more to create opportunity, reduce poverty and advance democracy than perhaps any other policies in history. 

Backgrounder: Trump, The Economy, and Trade

This backgrounder pulls together our work looking at President Trump’s economic and trade policies. 

Democrats Must Demonstrate Greater Leadership In Challenging Trump's Ruinous Trade Policy - Simon Rosenberg, Twitter, 5/8/19 - Democrats should be more aggressive in challenging Trump’s tariffs and trade policies given the failure of those policies to achieve their objectives and growing discontent with them around the country.

Beyond The Headlines, The Economy Continues To Weaken - Chris Taylor, Medium, 5/7/19 - The new narrative that the economy is back to growing strongly is significantly flawed, and is largely based upon two economic reports whose headlines were very strong but whose underlying data revealed continued weakness in the economy.  

Weekly Notes On The Economy - Chris Taylor, NDN, 5/7/19 - Weekly Notes On The Economy is a weekly column that NDN writes on the most recent economic news, policy, and data.

Challenging Trump's Tariffs - An Ongoing Series - Chris Taylor, NDN, 2/14/19 - In a new series challenging Trump's tariffs, we argue that the President's trade policy is illegal, recklessly ignorant, damaging to the US economy, and historically unpopular. Congress must step up and rescind them this fall.

Trump's Tax Cuts Have Failed To Deliver On Their Promises - Chris Taylor, NDN, 10/30/18 - Trump’s tax cut promised to boost growth by strengthening the labor market and investment, but today both metrics look very similar to their pre-tax cut trend. Instead, the deficit has surged to unprecedented levels and rapidly increasing interest rates are hurting ordinary Americans.

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