I was thinking about this post last night and puzzling over the sudden dip in Trump’s approval rating absent any real news to explain it. It’s been more than four months since he dropped as low as 41.5 percent in the RCP average. Think of all the presidential drama since mid-April; not once in that span did anything happen to knock the public’s view of him as low as it is right now.
There may have been no “real news” last week but there was major political news, wasn’t there? McCain died on August 25. By the morning of Monday the 27th, Trump had already ordered the White House flag to be raised from half-staff to full. Reporters badgered him all that day with requests to say something nice about McCain, with POTUS maintaining an icy silence. Only after the American Legion called on him publicly to be more respectful of McCain did the flag come back down to half-staff and Trump say a few complimentary words to a group of evangelicals about respecting McCain’s service.
There were anecdotal reports last week that vets weren’t happy with how McCain was treated. The plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data,” but — well, actually it is if there are enough similar anecdotes. Does the McCain snub explain the drop in his numbers? Note the dates:
Right around August 27, as chance would have it, that “approve” line begins to slide. That’s mainly thanks to ABC/WaPo and Emerson, two polls which happened to be in the field while the McCain postmortem drama was playing out. Both recorded 38 percent approval for Trump this past week. Several other pollsters in the field at the time notched numbers for POTUS a few points below his normal range of 42-43 percent, with IBD measuring him at 36 percent(!) approval in a survey that ran through August 30.
There may be something to the idea that this is McCain-related. Logically, with all left-leaning voters virtually unanimous in opposition to him, the only way to dent Trump’s approval rating is to give right-leaning voters a reason to be mad at him. That’s hard to do, particularly with the economy cruising, but affection and sympathy for McCain among Republican non-populists and annoyance at the pettiness of Trump’s flag snub might have managed to do it. Which, if so, is relatively good news for the GOP as it suggests the recent damage isn’t permanent. Any momentary drop in Trump’s numbers attributable to McCain is destined to be cured as the public moves on to other things. The two most recent national polls taken have him back at 43 percent, in fact. (Although one of those polls comes from Rasmussen, which normally pegs him several points higher than 43.) He’s probably on the way to rebounding already.
Don’t ignore the red “disapprove” line in the graph above either. We may be seeing a “McCain effect” there too as Trump’s numbers creep above 54 percent for the first time in months, but the upward surge in that rating actually began before McCain passed away. He was at 51.8 percent on August 21, then climbed a full point to 52.8 by August 24. The McCain fallout may have compounded that upward surge but the point is that he *was* on the way up in disapproval even before the McCain news broke. How come?
Exit question: Was Trump’s contempt for McCain based partly on … bad information? I’ll leave you with WaPo’s summary of an exchange between Trump and James Mattis, as reported by Bob Woodward. If this were true, though, you’d expect that Trump would have publicly accused McCain of having accepted an early release at some point. He never has.
At a dinner with Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, Trump lashed out at a vocal critic, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He painted the former Navy pilot as cowardly, falsely suggesting he took an early release from a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam because of his father’s military rank and left others behind.
Mattis swiftly corrected his boss: “No, Mr. President, I think you’ve got it reversed.” The defense secretary explained that McCain, who died Aug. 25, had in fact turned down early release and was brutally tortured during his five years at the “Hanoi Hilton.”
“Oh, okay,” Trump replied, according to Woodward’s account.