Trump’s Biggest Loss
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
The election is still six months away, but President Donald Trump has already suffered his greatest loss: the benefit of the doubt.
Trump doesn’t need a majority of Americans to trust him in order to govern the country, and he technically doesn’t even need a majority of Americans to win re-election. But he does need his friends and foes to trust him in order to reopen businesses and boost the economy. And that will have a fundamental impact on his chances for a second term.
Just 38% of Americans said they trusted Trump to give accurate information about the coronavirus and what to do during the outbreak, according to a May 11-13 poll conducted by CBS News/YouGov. Sixty-two percent said they did not trust him.
That sentiment lines up with another survey from last month. When asked whether they trust what Trump has said about the coronavirus, 36% said they trust him, while 52% said they do not, according to the April 13-15 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
When it comes to trust, Trump has been operating on thin margins since the beginning of his presidency. According to the 2016 exit polls, just 33% of voters said he was honest and trustworthy, while 64% said he was not. Trump also scored poorly on empathetic qualities that might serve him during a response to rising death totals. Of the voters who prioritized a candidate who “cares about me,” Hillary Clinton won them 57% to 34%. She also won voters who prioritized good judgment, 65% to 25%.
The president’s defenders will rightly point out that Trump won in 2016 despite the trust gap. And they may even admit that he doesn’t need a majority of Americans to support him in November since he won the first time with 46% of the national popular vote, 2 points behind Clinton.
Trump does need a majority of Americans to trust him when he says it’s safe to reopen businesses and shop again. Because if the economy doesn’t improve, the president has virtually no chance of winning in November.
The economy has been Trump’s key, particularly with independents, in a country where most Americans have already decided whether they are going to vote for the president. That polarization is evidenced by Trump’s remarkably static job rating, in which his disapproval rating has been higher than his approval rating for his entire first term except for his first month in office. His job rating on the economy has been consistently higher than his rating overall and has been an important part of his re-election pitch.
Trump might declare that the economy is “open” again, but it will take more to convince business owners that there’s an acceptable amount of risk to the lives of their employees, their customers and themselves.
And there’s a considerable amount of convincing to do. Just 18% of adults are comfortable eating at a restaurant, 17% feel comfortable going to a shopping mall, 12% are comfortable going to the movies, and 10% feel comfortable going to a concert, according to an April 29-30 poll by Morning Consult. Those are some of the things necessary to infuse the economy, and those attitudes aren’t going to change overnight, and certainly not from another speech by the president.
The situation has some similarities to George W. Bush’s. His job approval rating, which hit the stratosphere after the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, came down and held steady near 50% for more than a year before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. But after his widely panned response, the president’s rating started a gradual decline from the mid- to upper 40s to the mid- to upper 20s, according to Gallup, by the end of his second term when the nation was on the cusp of the large financial crisis that began in 2008.
Trump’s approval rating won’t dip that low, because his supporters will find something or someone else to blame even if the coronavirus crisis gets worse. But just as Americans started to tune out Bush after Katrina, a majority of people aren’t taking Trump seriously or literally anymore. He has finally met a crisis that he can’t talk his way out of.
The president’s standing has broader implications beyond his re-election. A politically weak Trump increases the chance that Democrats take control of the Senate and virtually guarantees that Democrats maintain control of the House, where they may even grow their majority.
So what can Trump do? Let other people talk. According to Morning Consult, medical and health professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were all far more trusted than the president. When people hear them talking about returning to something resembling normal, it’s more likely people will respond. Then the economy should improve, and so could Trump’s chances for a second term.
Nathan Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs.
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