No incumbent president pulling 55 percent on the economy and unemployment can be counted out for reelection, however anemic his overall job approval might be.
In fact, this poll is a reminder of how solid Trump’s 2020 prospects would look if he was a bit less … Trumpy, for lack of a better word.
It’s mostly Republicans driving that number but he’s at 53 percent approval on the economy and 56 percent on unemployment among independents, a group that gives him an overall job approval of just 35 percent. Those are also the only two out of 14 categories tested in which Trump has majority approval among indies. Maybe my point above should be reframed: Given how dimly independents view him on most matters, the economy and jobs are the only things giving him a fighting chance next year.
His overall job approval in the RCP poll of polls is also on the rise, and not just relative to the lows of the shutdown period. Since mid-March 2017 the highest number he’s posted in average job approval was 44.7 percent, which he touched briefly before the midterms last year thanks (I assume) to intensifying partisan fervor before the big vote. He’s at 44.2 percent today, though, and was at 44.4 percent yesterday. A few more good polls and he’ll touch 45 percent for the first time in two years. A clean-ish bill of health from Mueller might do it for him.
Why now? The economy’s been terrific since he was sworn in. There’s no obvious reason why his economic approval should be hitting new highs lately based on the GDP or unemployment numbers alone. Could it be the rebound in the stock market since December that’s driving it? The shutdown briefly drove the S&P 500 beneath 2,400 points on Christmas Eve but since then it’s regained more than 10 percent.
Alternate theory: Maybe this is the first stirrings of the 2020 dynamic in action. Trump benefited enormously in 2016 from facing an opponent who was widely disliked and distrusted herself. For the first two years of his presidency he lacked that contrast; his job approval was a pure referendum on him. Now, with the Democratic presidential field starting to fill out, his job approval may not be entirely a reflection of his own performance but also partly a measure of how voters think he compares to the top tier of the other party. Although if that were true you’d expect to see some movement on Obama’s job approval for good or ill around this time in 2011 as Republican candidates began testing the water and, as it turns out, there isn’t much of one. (He did see a spike in May 2011 but that was due to the Bin Laden raid.) In fact, O had a terrible stretch of polling later that year and was only middling in the first half of 2012 before rallying to defeat Romney.
Whether Obama and Trump can be fairly compared this way is debatable since the latter is more polarizing than the former and therefore might benefit more polling from a reminder to the public that the other party has candidates too and they all have their flaws. Something to keep in mind as we go forward. Exit question from a Dem pollster: Is Trump’s “drain the swamp” message effectively over? When you’re polling 37/60(!) on fighting corruption in government, as he is here, and half your aides from the campaign are either going to prison or being looked at by Mueller, swamp-draining is a tough point to run on.