Political News

When it isn't just 'LOL. Nothing Matters' for Trump

Posted July 17, 2018 5:21 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump's performance at Helsinki left many shaking their heads. He was criticized by the left and perhaps surprisingly from normally friendly voices like former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

To some, it may feel like we've been here before. Trump often does stuff that those in the political elite don't like. Then a week later we all forget about it because the public doesn't appear to care.

Trump has had a relatively narrow range of approval ratings from roughly 35% to 45%, no matter what he does and how much praise or denunciation he has received.

Even within that narrow band though, there is a big difference between a 35% and 45% approval rating. A 45% approval rating means that Trump is losing very little of the 46% of voters who cast a ballot for him in 2016. It's more than conceivable Republicans could hold onto the House in the midterms under such a scenario.

A 35% approval rating is something entirely different. It's far below the share of the vote he got in 2016. A 35% approval rating would almost certainly mean the Democrats win the House and would put them in the best possible position of taking the Senate as well.

Whether Trump's performance in Helsinki ultimately does hurt him electorally is unclear. This could be another case of "LOL. Nothing matters."

There are a few reasons to believe that Trump could be penalized for his actions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, however.

Let's take a look at the times when Trump has had a decline, even nominally, in his approval ratings, and how they could potentially forecast bad things -- even temporarily -- for the President this time around.

The firing of James Comey

There is some question as to why exactly Trump decided to toss former FBI Director James Comey to the curb in early May 2017, though, if you take Trump's word for it, the Russia investigation played a part.

Trump's approval rating dropped by about 3 points from the low 40s to the high 30s following his decision to let Comey go. His approval among Republicans in the Gallup tracking poll dropped 2 points as well to 84% (or 4 points below where it was in June 2018).

Trump's performance in Russia and the Comey firing aren't the same thing, though they do have some similarities. Unlike most of the other times Russia and the 2016 election were in the news, Trump's firing of Comey was an action he actually took. It wasn't something that someone else did that brought the issue into the news. The same is true for the press conference with Putin. It was Trump who refused to condemn Russian interference in the election or contradict Putin when suggested otherwise.

One might say in both instances, Trump did something that made him look guilty of some of the worst accusations against him.

The healthcare debacle in late July 2017

Arguably the bottom fell out for Trump when Sen. John McCain gave his thumbs down and thereby sunk the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. Trump's approval rating dropped another 3 points from the high 30s to the mid 30s. His approval rating among Republicans declined from 85% to 79%, per Gallup.

There are multiple reasons why the Senate failure on Obamacare could have brought Trump's approval down. It could be argued that the mere idea of fiddling with an increasingly popular health care program hurt Trump.

Another reason (supported by the drop in Republican support) is that Trump didn't deliver on a campaign promise, and the base was upset with him.

Or put another way, Trump proved that he wasn't the master negotiator he made himself to be. One of the appeals of Trump is that he is a businessman who knows how to cut deals. Americans' confidence for him to cut favorable trade deals are among his best numbers. He is also overwhelmingly described as a strong person by voters.

Trump couldn't strike a deal in July 2017 to end health care. He was strong-armed by McCain. The same way, some might argue, he couldn't strike any deals in Helsinki. Putin looked like he was strong-arming Trump and got everything.

The Alabama Senate special election aftermath

Trump's lowest approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight tracker was at 36% in mid-December 2017. That was just after Trump-endorsed Roy Moore lost the Alabama Senate election, and when the Republican-controlled Senate was struggling to pass tax reform.

If nothing else, Trump's brand is built around winning. At this point in his presidency, Trump's Republican Party was losing elections in deep red states and wasn't passing any legislation. He was a loser. At the same time, the opposition party (Democrats) were winning.

Indeed, winning politically in America is increasingly tied up with making the side you don't like lose. It's called negative partisanship.

With Putin, Trump didn't not only lose like he was in December 2017. By most accounts, he allowed a man who has just an 11% favorable rating in America to win on a major issue. A leader of a country that only 3% of Americans view as an ally.

Of course, even if Trump does see a decline in his approval ratings, it doesn't mean he won't recover. His approval rating has climbed back in the past.

The question will ultimately be whether Trump says or does something he shouldn't closer to election time. The more he lets the economy do the talking instead of his own mouth, the better off he'll probably be.