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.

Faith and begorrah

Quick… name something you believe in. Don’t tell me! (I know you can’t, this is a blog.)

Now, this thing you believe in, whether it’s a person, a being, a concept, an object, or whatever, how strongly do you believe in it? Are you certain it exists? Is there any way someone could convince you to stop believing in it?

Depending on how seriously you’re taking this little quiz, your answers could range from “my lucky socks” to “God.” We all have lots of things we believe in, some of them critical to our personality and philosophy and some that are more trivial.

Most of us have at least one sports team we don’t just root for, but believe in. For many Detroiters, it’s the Lions. Despite the fact that they’ve let us down nearly constantly for over fifty years, we still somehow believe in them. Our continued devotion to this inept football team, who defy the odds year after year to remain at best mediocre and at worst miserable, goes well beyond just being a casual fan. The Lions are part of us, they’re in our blood. We can criticize them (and we do, endlessly) but outsiders aren’t allowed to. An insult from a Bears or Packers fan is justification for a fight.

Some of our beliefs are in brands. Advertising has a lot to do with that, but we also tend to find things we like and stick with them. That’s a form of belief, too. I’ve bought nothing but Fords for at least twenty-five years (with one exception – a Saturn – that I blame my wife for, though it wasn’t a bad little car, really). Why would I do that? My mom’s family all worked for Oldsmobile and I grew up in Pontiac so I should be a GM guy, right? But I bought a used Taurus in 1997 and it was the best car I’d ever owned, and kept on buying Fords because I honestly never had any problems with any of them. I’m sure GM, FiatChrysler, and other automakers make good vehicles, but I believe in Ford. My belief is more of a habit, though, and less devotional. Some people, like the ones who have the little pictures of Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) peeing on another truck maker’s logo, are a bit more intense. Like the Lions, you’d best not disparage their truck brand or you might be taking it outside.

I wonder, pretty much daily, how anyone could stick with Trump after the past four years. It’s obvious to me that he’s been conning people, that he suffers from an inability to care about anyone but himself, that he’s a compulsive liar, especially when the truth puts him in a bad light. I’m not even sure that he knows what’s real, or that it matters to him at all. Trump’s reality is that he’s a winner, he always wins, bigger than anyone else that’s even tried to do what he’s done, and anything that contradicts that is fake news, fraud, rigged, a conspiracy against The Donald.

For many reasons, people bought into that – hard. They’ve devoted time and money, they set up sign and flag shrines, they became… believers. Trumpism has moved beyond mere fandom to religious-level faith. And like other deeply-held beliefs, it’s damn hard – if not impossible – to get disciples to see that the object of their belief isn’t what he seemed to be. Logic and facts mean nothing. There is no appeal to reason, because faith isn’t reasonable or rational. It just is.

A set of strongly held and shared beliefs is the basis of a cult, not just in the pejorative sense of that word (Merriam-Webster’s first definition, like the Branch Davidians or the Manson Family) but also in the mainstream sense (the third definition, “a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also its body of adherents”). By that definition, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and every other conventional religion are cults. There’s very little factual proof; it just is. And it really depends on your point of view. One person’s cult is another’s religion, and vice versa.

If we’re waiting for Trump’s supporters to come to their senses, I have bad news: They’re not going to, at least not any time soon. And trying to convince them with facts isn’t helpful, either. They have too much invested in him and the things they think he stands for: some of it motivated by racism and xenophobia, certainly, but also by a more simple fear that people like them are under siege by outsiders, marauding invaders, who are going to dilute their authority and their rightful power. There’s too much at stake for them, politically, financially, and, frankly, spiritually, for them to easily change their minds.

Over time, their fervor may start to fade. But as you can see from the history of Detroit Lions fans, it may take generations to happen.