President Trump often celebrates extraordinary high approval ratings from Republicans. Just this week, Trump wrote, “96% approval rating in the Republican Party. Thank you!”
Political analysts attribute the high approval to Trump’s laser-like focus on the Republican base. Over the past 3 and half years, Trump advanced business friendly deregulation policies, significant tax-cuts, appointment of conservative judges and a tough immigration agenda. This satisfied Republicans, the logic goes, and deepened party loyalty.
While all of this may be true, presidential approval questions include four response categories – not just approve and disapprove. Most news media – and indeed Presidents – combine approval categories. Why? Because it fits their version of reality.
Combining approval categories
Here is the presidential approval question and response categories as they appear in surveys:
“Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as President?”
People that strongly approve or somewhat approve are typically pooled into a general approval category. Similarly, analysts combine the two disapprove categories.
For the last 8 months, average Republican approval approaches 90% (see graph below). Not the 95% Trump led us to believe. Nevertheless impressive. Something Trump can brag about.
In addition, high approval validates observer’s inclination to label the GOP as unusually – or irrationally – loyal. What else could explain such high approval during the coronavirus pandemic, high unemployment and now protests sweeping across the nation? Look again at approval. It is reliably high, which ostensibly signals strong party loyalty.
Now let’s examine each approval category
The picture changes considerably. About 6 in 10 Republicans strongly approve. This is the much discussed Trump base – 60% of Republicans. But another quarter of the GOP are soft supporters – merely somewhat approving of Trump.
This split offers clues about Trump’s actual approval. Over a majority of Republicans are strong supporters, and likely will stay that way. But a significant proportion are not, and opt for a measured response.
The Trump campaign cannot afford to lose these soft supporters. It is a delicate balancing act. A divisive, attack minded, fiery Trump repels the temperate wing but invigorates the considerably larger base. Former GOP National Security Advisor Colin Powell’s recent defection – saying he will vote for Democrat nominee Joe Biden, illustrates the predicament.
Indeed Trump’s instincts to plow ahead, shame the defectors, and fire up the base threaten his reelection chances. The 2016 playbook will not be as effective in 2020. Relative to Hillary Clinton, Biden draws higher favorability ratings and his moderate demeanor and issue positions appeal to many Powell- type GOP voters. Powell in fact acknowledged he was very close to Biden on the issues and would campaign on his behalf.
In a close election, only a few of those ‘somewhat approve” Republicans are required for a Biden victory.
Use the data
Of course, I do not expect Trump to say, “60% strong approval rating in the Republican Party. Thank you!” We can be sure that politicians will paint the picture that best suits them.
However, political reporters and analysts know better. They should not simply use Trump’s rendering as a starting point to analyze Republican loyalty, GOP approval, or prospects for reelection. Two GOP camps exist. The data is there, use it.