Why Trump's Approval Ratings Barely Budge | Opinion

The two most discussed political stories of 2019 are, first, the longest federal government shutdown ever and second, the release of the "Top Line" findings of the long-awaited Mueller report. The first saw strong daily criticism of the Trump Administration from all quarters, over the president's promise to "own" the shutdown. The second provided a substantial morale boost to the president and his supporters for the finding of "no collusion" from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

But there was one common denominator to both stories: The president's approval rating barely budged.

According to the political site "Real Clear Politics" which averages all of the publically available presidential polls, the president's approval rating as of early April stands at 43.7 percent with 52.8 disapproval. All polls included were completed after Attorney General William Barr released his summary letter. President Trump and his allies have claimed vindication in speeches and media appearances across the country. Yet for all polls averaged by RCP for the first two weeks of March, ten days prior to Barr's announcement, presidential approval stood at 42.8 percent, less than a 1 percent change even after the president's best media week in memory. Additional surveys through Wednesday (April 3) show the president holding steady at slightly over 42 percent.

The shutdown of the federal government lasted over a month, from December 22, 2018 until January 25 of this year. As noted, the president took incoming fire from all quarters as large majorities of Americans opposed the shutdown. Yet the average of 28 surveys taken during that time revealed presidential approval of 41.6 percent.

So the spread between the worst presidential news cycle and the very best ten days after the Barr announcement was 2.1 percent. Maybe the public isn't paying attention. That would be troubling and unlikely, given the undeniable importance to the country of both stories. But maybe there's something else involved. Maybe most Americans have already made up their minds about the president. The election outcome is unresolved, but these poll results offer important clues as to how each party will conduct their campaign efforts in the coming 20 months.

For the Republicans, their candidate is seeking reelection and reelections are always first about the incumbent. If the public likes the body of work, they will win. Most incumbents do win reelection, as have recent presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama. Losing incumbents were not selling what the public wanted. Jimmy Carter was a victim of oil embargos and hostages. George H. W. Bush was running at the end of a 12-year Republican cycle and voters were looking for change.

Trump's approval numbers are not good. However, as the surveys indicate, he has a rock-solid base that will stick with him regardless of events and circumstances, and he begins the race with the largest group of supporters of anyone. He's already indicated his intent to double down on tried and true issues to boost support from groups that strongly favor him, such as older white voters, gun owners, evangelicals, and Republicans. His campaign will seek to expand the electorate vertically, not horizontally. Look for a continued heavy emphasis on the threats from mass immigration and unbridled free trade. He is also counting on a strong economy and his conservative judicial selections as "promises fulfilled." The campaign's policy wonks will be dwarfed in number by micro targeters, bloggers, and social influencers.

Democrats face a strategic choice: Will they go for an expanded electorate horizontally, by appealing to moderate centrist voters or will they go vertically, and double down on the progressive activists that dominate the leadership of the party? All candidates will be making their "electability" case, but will have different tactical objectives and target voter groups depending on their strategic outlook.

Former VP Joe Biden leads early national surveys of Democrats and defeats the president in key battleground states. However, this may be the product of higher voter ID. His ideological opposite, Bernie Sanders, also does well in these states, though not as well as Biden. In a good development for Democrats, even the lesser-known candidates run well against the president.

Democrats have a bigger voter pool (50 percent plus of voters who disapprove of the president's job performance) but bringing all such voters under one umbrella will be a challenge. No candidate is perfect and the reelect team will find weaknesses in whichever Democrat emerges. A race against a nameless Democrat will not be the same as one against a real candidate with strengths and weaknesses. Democrats need only look to the scars from the primary campaign in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that never fully healed. That opening allowed Trump to win a large number of voters who disapproved of him but disliked Clinton even more.

It says here that high propensity voting centrists should be easier to win than lower intensity progressives. The Democratic candidates' early focus on extra constitutional proposals such as court packing (rejected even by Franklin Roosevelt Democrats) and the abolition of the electoral college, and out of the policy mainstream measures like reparations and abolishing private health insurance, will make it more difficult for Democrats to ultimately win moderate voters looking for a change of direction, but not a constitutional rewrite. Past successful national Democrats (Carter, Clinton, Obama) have combined soaring rhetoric for reconciliation and a better future with enough specific policy proposals aimed squarely at making life better for the crucial middle class who feel squeezed by economic circumstance. Such voters might also be looking for a candidate that offers more cooperation rather than confrontation.

A majority of Americans will be open to looking at the out party's candidate and promises. Democrats will argue for a change in direction. Republicans will contend the Democrats' change is too radical. Voters will be hearing it all—for the next twenty months.

Frank Donatelli, a senior advisor at McGuireWoods Consulting in Washington, served in the Reagan White House as an assistant to the President for political and intergovernmental affairs. He was deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​