Presidential approval polls reflect our partisan divisions

WARNING: Extreme wonkiness ahead. The post contains repetitive references to polling data and presidential history. It’s also kind of long. You’ve been warned.

FiveThirtyEight has started their composite polling index on the popularity of President Joe Biden. Tracking started on January 23 and as of this morning, Biden has 53.4% of Americans approving of his job over the first twelve days (seems like longer, doesn’t it?), while 34% disapprove. Not exactly a mirror image of Donald Trump’s final day in office, which showed 38.6% approving and 57.9% disapproving of his work after 1,461 days.

FiveThirtyEight’s methodology includes taking a fairly wide range of polling, weighting it according to factors include the type of poll, the sample size, and the partisan lean of the pollsters, and coming up with a composite score. (If you’re into that kind of thing – and I am – RealClearPolitics.com does a similar compilation of poll results.)

The interesting thing to me looking at the historical polling that FiveThirtyEight also shows on their composite page is how the data seems to support the notion that we’re more clearly divided along partisan lines than any time since national approval polls became more common during Harry Truman’s presidency. (Caveat: Polling was still fairly infrequent and tended to be done by only a single or perhaps two or three organizations, while polls are taken nearly every day now and dozens of news and polling groups are involved, so older data isn’t necessarily apples to apples.)

The earliest data shown on the page is from the beginning of Harry Truman’s term, taking office after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. Truman had been Vice President for only 82 days before Roosevelt’s death; he was president for less than a month before the victory in Europe was declared in May. His first polling showed 87% of Americans approving of him and only 3 percent disapproving, a split of 84 percentage points that has never been seen since (George W. Bush came close after the 9/11 attacks, reaching and 80.5 percentage point difference as the country briefly came together).

Truman’s approval numbers quickly dropped, though, reaching a nadir in late 1946 at 33%. After rallying to the 60 percent range during the last days of the 1948 election, Truman’s numbers declined steadily as the U.S. entered the Korean conflict in 1950 and he finished his second term with only 32 percent of Americans approving.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first Republican to hold the office of president since Herbert Hoover’s term ended in March 1933. Eisenhower’s approval numbers only very briefly dropped below 50% during his eight years in office from 1953 to 1961, more often trending in the 60 to 70 percent range and finishing at 60.1% approval. When John Kennedy succeeded him in 1961 (beating Eisenhower’s Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 election), you might have expected the polling to reverse, as it has in 2021.

But JFK maintained solid approval numbers from the start, initially getting 72 percent approval numbers, similar to Eisenhower’s final approval ratings. Kennedy’s numbers fell off over his 1,033-day presidency, with a low of 56.3% shortly before his assassination in November 1963, but never had less than half of the country supporting him.

Lyndon Johnson started with an 80 percent approval rating, mostly as a result of the country coming together after the murder of the president. Johnson had many challenges that he inherited from the Kennedy administration, including the ongoing Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, and a sense that the country’s youth were moving significantly away from “traditional” values, including the use of recreational drugs and rejection of sexual and other societal norms. By the end of his term in 1969, LBJ became only the second president since modern polling had started to drop under the 50 percent approval mark, finishing with only 48.7% approving of the job he’d done.

Richard Nixon returned to Washington in 1969. His first approval numbers seem like a reversal of Johnson’s negative polling, but not nearly as clear-cut as we’re seeing this year. Nixon was never widely popular as president; he started with 59 percent approval and that moved in a narrow range until his successful diplomatic effort with China in 1972 which also brought some success in détante with the U.S.S.R. Nixon’s approval rating jumped to 68.5%. But then the Watergate scandal was discovered and dragged on for nearly two years, bringing his approval rating down with it. When he resigned in August 1974, only 25.1% of American still approved of him.

Gerald Ford started with 71 percent approval but almost immediately lost it upon pardoning Nixon. He dropped to 49.1 percent approval within two weeks and spent the remainder of his 894-day presidency under the 50 percent mark, only surfacing near the end to 51.5%. Ford’s situation was rather unique, though, being the only president who wasn’t elected to either the vice-presidency or the presidency and coming in after what was, at that time, the major presidential scandal of the country’s history.

Jimmy Carter took office with a 66 percent approval rating, but the wretched economy of the late 1970s contributed to a sense that America had lost its way, and Carter was blamed for not being able to change that. By the time he left in 1981, his approval rating was only 33.7%.

Ronald Reagan came into the White House proclaiming that it was “Morning in America,” but his initial polling reflected the start of the division that we continue to experience today. After a hard-fought campaign against not just the Democrat Carter, who was trying to win a second term despite his abysmally low approval numbers, but also a former Republican-turned-independent in John Anderson, Reagan only enjoyed a bare majority (51%) of Americans approving of him at the start. The number went up into the 60s for a short time as the hostages were brought home from Iran (which had been negotiated by the Carter administration but which Reagan would get some credit for) and an assassination attempt two months into his first term, but Reagan turned out to be as polarizing a figure as president as he’d been as governor of California, and his approval numbers dropped to around 35% two years in. His second term saw positive approval growth until the Iran-Contra affair came to light; Reagan’s approval numbers dropped twenty percentage points in a matter of weeks. At the end, Reagan had approval numbers in the low 60s.

Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, succeeded Reagan in 1989 after defeating Democrat Mike Dukakis. His numbers were generally positive and spiked as high as 85 percent approval during the Gulf War in 1990-91, but they dropped thereafter due to a lingering economic recession. He finished his single term with an approval rating of 47.1%.

Bill Clinton’s presidency is an aberration when it comes to approval ratings. Starting with only modest support (very similar to Biden’s at around 53%), Clinton’s numbers went up and down in a fairly narrow range between 45 and 55 percent for most of the first term. In the second term, with the economy growing rapidly due to a technology boom also fueled by the rise of the Internet, his numbers ranged in the 50s and 60s, and actually rose after he was impeached in 1998. Clinton left office with approval ratings of about 67 percent, similar to FDR and Reagan at the end of their presidencies.

George W. Bush started with approval ratings below 50 percent, largely as a result of the prolonged battle over the result of the 2000 election, when even some of those who voted for him disagreed with how his team had litigated the court challenges. Late in his first year in office, however, the 9/11 attacks brought the country together again and his approval rating jumped to 86.6% with only 8.2% disapproving. Bush was unable to capitalize on that support, however. The War on Terror became an excuse to wage war in Iraq, despite questionable intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein’s government had “weapons of mass destruction.” The goodwill was squandered and by the end of the second Bush presidency, his approval rating was around 30 percent.

The first real mirror polling image happened in 2008 with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Where Bush’s numbers were negative as he left office (32.3/62.7), Obama’s were positive (61.2/21.3). The Obama presidency never gained traction, however, despite a few signature achievements such as the Affordable Care Act, that (while popular with those who now had health insurance coverage) was used as a political weapon against him and Democrats in general for the rest of his presidency – and beyond. Obama never gained widespread support for many reasons, including rising racism against the country’s first Black president and the growth of grievance politics fed by gerrymandered congressional districts that resulted in the emergence of movements such as the Tea Party. At the end, 57.9% of Americans approved of the job he’d done as president.

Donald Trump, alone among the polling-era presidents, had only a few days of positive poll numbers. By day 13, he was already under the 50 percent mark at 44.8%, and it never got any better than that. Unfortunately, it never got much worse, either, as Trump held onto a solid core of Americans who consistently told pollsters that they approved of the job he was doing no matter what he did, said, or tweeted. The indiscretions, outrages, and lies are well-documented, but none of it made much of a dent in his reputation to his true believers. When he left office on January 20, 2021, following the despicable events of 1/6 at the U.S. Capitol and his evident involvement in them, Donald Trump still had over 40 percent approval from Americans, almost all of them Republicans.

So Joe Biden has the support of a majority of our fellow citizens for now. Perhaps he can earn the trust of some of the fringe Trump supporters over time. A resolution of the COVID pandemic and continued progress on re-opening and supporting the economy and individuals who are struggling will go a long way. But the near-mirroring of approval ratings from Obama to Trump, and then from Trump to Biden, suggests that our division is not only more glaring than ever, but also becoming more ingrained, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the nation.

Stumbling across the finish line

It’s Inauguration Day. As I write this, it’s just after 10 a.m. Eastern time, Donald Trump has flown off to Florida, and the dignitaries are arriving for the inauguration of Joe Biden as president.

I’d like to say I’m excited about the change, but honestly, I’m just exhausted. I’ve read stories about endurance athletes, like marathoners, triathletes, and distance cyclists, and how, as they approach the finish line, they’re more relieved than thrilled that their journey is over. Later, they can appreciate their accomplishment, but in the moment, they’re just happy it’s over.

I feel that way today. I think we’ll have things to celebrate in the days and months to come. Perhaps the work needed to fix our many serious problems will be accomplished with a new president and a Congress controlled by one party. A lot of that will have to do with how determined Mitch McConnell is to make sure that nothing positive happens, thanks to the filibuster. Chuck Schumer may have a big decision to make to restrict or eliminate the filibuster entirely, which is a Senate rule and tradition, not required by the Constitution.

But right now, I’m just exhausted. After living through four years of attacks on our democratic norms, culminating with the reprehensible attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I’m trying to be positive and trying to be excited, but I can’t summon up the energy to believe that we’re suddenly going to flip a switch and go back to our regularly-scheduled democracy. Maybe that will happen tomorrow.

We’ll see.

Signs, revisited

Back in September I wrote a post about the political signs in my neighborhood. In the last paragraph, I suggested something that I intended as a joke:

On the bright side, maybe we can beat each other over the head with our signs when it’s finally over.

I imagine you’ve seen multiple videos of the mob attacking police officers during the insurrection, using flagpoles, fire extinguishers, pretty much whatever was on hand… including their protest signs. I won’t link them here, they’re easy to find on YouTube if you’ve somehow missed them.

It’s gut-wrenching to think that we have that many people who were willing to commit felonies in plain sight for a single individual. And that they chose to make it so easy to identify them, because they wouldn’t wear masks because their hero had made that politically toxic. Watching the videos, it’s easy to think we’re split right down the middle and that endless conflict, whether it reappears as physical confrontations or not, is inevitable.

I don’t think it is. And I’m going to use my completely unscientific observations of my neighborhood as the basis of this postulate. My counts are based on a regular cycling route I use through Marine City and East China Township, and includes lower-middle-class to middle-class homes. This is generally a working-class area.

As I noted in September, my neighbors had a lot of signs, flags, and other displays (some bordering on shrines to Donald Trump) in their yards. About every fourth or fifth house had a sign or flag or both. Most were for Trump, but a sizable percentage – let’s say 30 percent – were for Biden. After the election, most of them were taken down within a week. Some of them – maybe a third – stayed up through last week, especially the more elaborate displays of Trump signs mixed with American flags.

After 1/6, you can count the Trump flags and signs on one hand. I think that’s significant. St. Clair County is a very red county in Michigan. Almost every elected official from township to federal offices are Republicans. Even when the office is supposed to be non-partisan, everyone knows which candidates are GOPers and which are Democrats. So if you were looking for continued protests on behalf of the president, this is one place you’d expect to see it.

I think the events of last week were too much for many Trump voters. Notice that I said “voters,” not “supporters.” My feeling – and hope – is that many of the 74 million plus Americans who voted for Trump are as appalled by the insurrection – even if they can’t bring themselves to call it that – as the rest of us are. And they’ve decided enough is enough, they can’t be associated with that, and the signs have disappeared.

You can see some of that in the national polls as well. Today’s FiveThirtyEight composite polling chart shows Trump’s approval rating at 40.0%, while 55.8% disapprove. That’s down nearly five percentage points from right after the election in November, and most of the drop is in the last week.

Yesterday we kept hearing from Republicans in the U.S. House (with the exception of the ten who voted for impeachment, including Michigan’s Fred Upton and Peter Meijer) about how 74 million Americans still stand behind the president and that impeaching him would just incite more violence. I don’t believe we’re going to see 74 million people in the streets today or on January 20. Almost all of them are disappointed, perhaps even still angry, that their candidate lost. But in the end, most of us – regardless of our opinion on whether Trump has done a good job or not – want to get on with our lives. We want our families to thrive. We want the pandemic to go away. And we want to be left in peace.

I’m hopeful that last paragraph will also turn out to be true. No joking here, not this time. After all, it’s in the signs.

Cat facts

What’s the answer to the following simple math problem?

4 + 6 = ?

Take your time. It’s not a trick question, by the way. Just a straightforward addition problem.

All set? Good. The answer, of course, is 10.

Did you get that answer? Yes, you did. Nearly every American child learns simple addition beginning in first grade. Maybe you memorized addition tables, or maybe you learned it in story problem form:

Mary has four cats. If Mary adds six more cats to her family, how many cats will Mary have?

Yes, Mary will have ten cats. (Mary is also well on her way to being a crazy cat lady, but that’s another issue.)

Very few people will contest this fact. Oh, you’ll run into the occasional philosopher or theoretical mathematician who will state that “the cats don’t exist at all” or “the number of cats approaches 10 but never actually becomes 10,” or you have an older version of Excel that somehow comes up with 9.999999999999 cats as the answer. In the real, boring, everyday world people actually live in, there are now ten cats. This is known as a fact.

A fact is something that’s empirically true. Through observation or experience, we can know that 4 plus 6 equals 10. We can observe Mary’s home, see the four cats she had previously, watch her crate in six more, and then count them to prove that there are now ten cats.

In politics, facts are more nebulous. That’s not to say that there isn’t something empirically true at the root; for example, Joe Biden got over 81 million votes for president in 2020 while Donald Trump got over 74 million. Using our first-grade subtraction skills, we can determine that Biden got about 7 million votes more than Trump. We don’t elect presidents based on the overall popular vote, of course, but it does indicate that Biden was more popular than Trump among all voters. This is a fact.

Unless you don’t believe it. Despite dozens of court challenges by the Trump campaign, all but one of which has resulted in a defeat for them, we’re still hearing rhetoric about “fraud,” “dead people voting,” “ballots being counted multiple times,” and so on. Most of the leaders of this line of argument know what they’re claiming isn’t true, but the empirical facts in this case are very inconvenient for them. What they want is a country where we can ignore election facts and continue to rule simply because they think they should. That is not democracy, it is autocracy, and that is also a fact.

As we continue to navigate through these treacherous waters over the next two weeks and into the first months of the Biden presidency, here are a few definitions (another type of facts) that are understood differently depending on your political ambitions and needs (actual definitions are from the New Oxford American Dictionary). Keep in mind that the ability to redefine words isn’t limited to Trump supporters; politicians of every party and stripe are fully capable of ignoring facts when it suits them:

Fraud (n.) Wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.

Alternate political definition: Everything my opponent does that isn’t completely in line with my political needs.

Legal (adj.) Recognized by common or statutory law.
Vote (n.) A formal indication of a choice between two or more candidates or courses of action, expressed typically through a ballot or a show of hands or by voice.

Alternate political definition of “legal votes”: All votes for the candidate I support; any votes for anyone else are therefore “illegal.”

American (n.) A native or citizen of the United States.

Alternate political definition: A native (and usually not a naturalized citizen) of the United States who agrees with my political point-of-view, i.e. “The American People support what we’re doing here” or “We need to do this for The American People.” May also include sub-definitions that specify racial, ethnic, gender, sexual preference, or other individual traits that also are similar to the person using the alternative political definition.

I could go on. There are many other words that have been thrown around since the election that have actual definitions but seem to have a different meaning depending on who’s saying them: “allegations,” “preponderance,” “patriot,” “socialism,” and “stolen.”

I’m not sure how we get back to a place where we can start to agree on what words mean and that facts are, well, facts. It has to start with us rejecting the appeasement of those who refuse to acknowledge reality and who commit crimes against our country in the service of falsehoods. If we’re unwilling to hold those people accountable for their lies and deceit, there’s no chance we can return to a time when we can agree that Mary, in fact, has ten cats.

Electoral College votes shouldn’t be dramatic, but 2020, right?

So it looks like maybe, just maybe, this guy Joe Biden might end up being the next president of the United States. I know you were wondering about it, what with all the lawsuits and official statements (and, of course, tweets – the official communications tool of the Trump White House). I mean, if a guy like Rudy Giuliani is involved, it’s gotta be serious, right?

For the first time in anyone’s memory, though, the voting of Electoral College delegates in many state capitals today was dramatic, tense, and even a bit scary. In Lansing, Michigan’s Capitol Building was closed to the public because the state’s sixteen presidential electors were meeting to cast their votes and there had been threats of violence against them that the Republican leadership of the House and Senate felt were credible.

My state representative, Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair Twp.), went on the Paul Miller Show on WPHM in Port Huron this morning and suggested that there could be something “dangerous” happening at the State Capitol today. When asked if he could guarantee that everyone would be safe in Lansing today, Rep. Eisen refused to say yes. Instead, he was going to participate in an event later in the day that would be “all over the news later on.”

From the New York Times, December 14, 2020 (nytimes.com)

As a result, the GOP leadership in the Michigan Legislature stripped Eisen of all of his committee assignments for the remainder of this term, which ends in two weeks. It’s unclear whether he’ll be able to return to any committees in the new year; Eisen was re-elected last month (despite all of the alleged fraud and shenanigans, apparently his election was completely on the “up and up”) to another two-year term with 61 percent of the vote in our solidly-conservative district.

Every human interaction has the potential for violence. Starting as children, we learn that we can’t always have our way and that there is a difference between winning and losing, and that threatening violence is not a civilized way of getting what you want. Most of us accept this, internalize it, and we’re seldom provoked to the point of potential violence. Individually, that type of behavior is only seen in severely anti-social personalities. However, when people in positions of leadership start behaving that way, it becomes more acceptable, and a mob is capable of practically anything at that point.

The Republican leadership in Lansing did the right thing in swiftly condemning Eisen’s statements and demonstrating that they took their oaths to defend the U.S. and Michigan constitutions seriously. While I disagree with them on many issues, current Michigan House speaker Lee Chatfield and his successor, Jason Wentworth, absolutely did the right thing, and I commend them.

If we’re unable to move on and restore some semblance of unity, we’re going to have bigger problems than the pandemic gave us next year.