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Trump approval at historic low, but Democrats also face unpopularity

President Donald Trump tries on a Stetson hat during a "Made in America," product showcase featuring items created in each of the U.S. 50 states, Monday, July 17, 2017, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump is less popular than any other commander-in-chief has been at the six-month mark in their first term in modern history, according to a new poll, but his political opponents must overcome their own unpopularity if they hope to capitalize on his low approval ratings.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll evaluating Trump’s performance at the midpoint of his first year in office found that only 36 percent of Americans approve of him. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that his approval rating of “almost 40%” is “not bad.”

“There's just no sugarcoating it: Trump is unpopular,” Democratic strategist Matt McDermott said.

Trump’s 36 percent approval is the lowest polls have recorded six months into a presidency in 70 years.

“If you compare where he is right now with where every president since Harry Truman was at this point, he’s the worst,” said Michael Cornfield, research director at the George Washington University Global Center for Political Management.

Republican strategist David Payne, president of Codavate, noted that most of the last 13 presidents have hit approval ratings as low as Trump's are right now at some point in their presidency. However, he added that Trump’s numbers are particularly low for the first six months and they are trending in the wrong direction.

“Most presidents end up having a relatively high approval rating early in their first term, and this is something we have not seen yet in Donald Trump’s numbers,” he said. “They started negative and they’ve stayed negative.”

Bloomberg News released a poll Monday offering similarly grim findings for the president, but it includes some potentially encouraging numbers as well.

According to the poll, 40 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s performance, and only 32 percent believe the country is heading in the right direction. The poll also found deep skepticism about Trump accomplishing a number of his campaign promises, including 67 percent who do not believe his border wall will be built.

Just four out of ten adults expressed some level of confidence that Trump is representing the country’s interests rather than his own business interests when he deals with foreign leaders. Majorities said relations with Germany, Mexico, and Cuba have worsened since Trump took office.

“What should be particularly concerning to Trump is that he is this unpopular even as he's buoyed by a relatively strong economy,” said McDermott, associate director at Whitman Insight Strategies.

Trump’s personal ratings are hovering at record lows despite a strong job market, military success abroad, and a lack of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and the polls indicate this is more because of his behavior and his tweets than his policies.

“You have a general sense of economic well-being,” Payne said. “You would expect that to reflect well on a president, especially in the first term.”

One reason for this may be the constant distractions from the administration’s message, many of them caused by Trump’s own tweets and mishandling of controversies.

“Also reflected is the lack of progress on the things that he ran on,” Payne said, including immigration, infrastructure, tax reform, and most prominently, health care.

More than half of respondents to the Bloomberg poll said Trump’s statements and actions have made them more pessimistic about him. However, 51 percent still believe the stock market will finish the year higher than it is right now, and 46 percent said they approve of his handling of the economy.

A Gallup poll released Monday showed more Americans agree with Trump on issues than believe he has the personality and character a president should have, a notable shift from Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who typically rated much better on personality than issues.

While Gallup has Trump’s job approval at 38 percent, only 34 percent said he has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have. Eighteen percent of respondents approve of Trump’s job performance while also thinking he lacks the proper personality to be president.

Trump managed to win the presidency despite similarly historic low approval ratings as a candidate, but experts say his numbers still matter for the Republican legislative agenda now and the party’s fate in next year’s midterm elections.

“Since the 1950s, a newly elected president’s party has lost seats in the House eight times in nine elections,” McDermott said. “So Republicans are already facing an uphill battle. But the president’s job approval at the time of the midterms also has some effect on the magnitude of these losses.”

Voters register relatively low approval for the Democratic Party as well, but Cornfield pointed to polls that currently show Democrats up by 7 points in a generic House ballot against Republicans.

“If that were true on Election Day 2018, they would retake the House,” he said.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests Trump is doing better among some of the voters who were most instrumental in his victory. The survey evaluated 439 counties that either voted for Trump after supporting Barack Obama in 2012 or voted for Trump by a significantly larger margin than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Overall, Trump’s approval rating in these counties was 50 percent, including 29 percent who strongly approve of him. In the counties Trump flipped from Obama, his approval sits at 44 percent; in the counties where he surged above Romney’s numbers, it is 56 percent.

Due to the relatively small sample sizes involved, the margin of error for the flipped counties was 5.3 percent and the margin for the surge counties was 6.1 percent.

“The more unpopular Trump gets, particularly if he starts to lose ground among his base voters, the easier it will be for fellow Republicans to jump ship and start caring more about their own electoral futures than propping up a lame duck Trump,” McDermott said.

Democrats have little reason to gloat over the president’s popularity, given that theirs is not much better.

The Post/ABC poll found that only 37 percent of Americans believe the Democratic Party “stands for something.” More than half said the party is just driven by opposition to Trump. Even 27 percent of Democrats agreed that their party has no affirmative agenda.

“In a way, the shoe is on the other foot now,” Payne said. “Democrats are now using the Republican playbook from the last six years of the Obama administration.”

Democrats are doing everything they can to grind Congress to a halt, echoing what Payne described as Republicans’ “vigorous opposition to everything that came out of the Obama White House.”

“It’s a typical out-party problem,” Cornfield said of Democrats’ struggle to find something to stand for.

He added that Republicans’ failure to pass a health care bill or advance a clear tax reform plan may be making it even harder for Democrats to come together because they do not know what they will be running against.

“It’s hard for an out-party to unify without knowing what it is they have to specify alternatives for,” he said.

A mid-June Zogby poll attempted to compare President Trump’s favorability to that of Congress in general and the leaders of both parties in each chamber.

At the time, the survey found Trump’s approval rating was 40 percent, notably higher than the 25 percent who approved of the performance of Congress. The president also beat opinions of the overall performance of the Democratic and Republican Parties in Congress (34 percent and 30 percent, respectively).

The top Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Republicans, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Paul Ryan, all fell below President Trump in approval as well. At 36 percent, Ryan scored the best of the four, and Pelosi’s 29 percent was the lowest.

These findings are consistent with other polls conducted since Trump took office. The numbers break down along predictably partisan lines, but they seem to reflect a general disdain for the entire political establishment.

“People dislike the other party more than they like their own,” Cornfield said. That sense of negative partisanship has been at work for years and has a tendency to reinforce itself.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “There’s very little grounds for optimism.”

The Bloomberg poll asked Americans what they think will realistically happen in the next several years. While 55 percent said North Korea launching a nuclear weapon at the U.S. is realistic, 35 percent said the same for health care legislation that lowers premiums and covers more people will be passed. Only 21 percent believe it is realistic that Republicans and Democrats will work together for the benefit of the American people.

“The massive systemic problem that we face in the political system right now is cynicism,” Payne said. “Trump ran against this. Everybody runs against this. Everybody runs against Washington.”

When they get to Washington, though, they become Washington in the eyes of voters and the public’s cynicism spreads to them as well.

“The only way to solve this is to stay collegial and focus on policy,” Payne said.

To do that, the parties need to find common ground to compromise. There are issues where that is possible, like infrastructure and some aspects of tax reform, but those are not the issues at the forefront in Congress.

“We haven’t gotten there because we’re stuck on the issue of greatest heat and flame, and that is Obamacare,” he said. “We can’t get past it.”

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