Don’t Assume Trump’s Approval Rating Can’t Climb Higher. It Already Has.

Donald J. Trump doesn’t always seem like a candidate focused on expanding his base of support. He may have done so anyway.

The share of Americans who say they have a favorable view of him has increased significantly since the 2016 election.

And over the last few months, some of the highest-quality public opinion polls, though not all, showed the president’s job approval rating — a different measure from personal favorability — had inched up to essentially match the highest level of his term.

The increase in his support since 2016, and the possibility that it continues to move higher, does not necessarily make him a favorite to win re-election. His job approval ratings remain well beneath 50 percent, and have never eclipsed it. But it has some important implications in how to view his re-election prospects.

One common view of the 2020 election, for instance, takes 2016 as a starting point. It notes that Democrats fell just short of victory, and that therefore any number of changes — a better candidate, higher black turnout, and so on — would be enough to win the election for Democrats in 2020. This way of thinking assumes that the president’s support would remain unchanged — that he could do little to match incremental increases in Democratic turnout or support, compared with 2016.

But it is not 2016 anymore. Millions of Americans who did not like the president in 2016 now say they do. Over all, his personal favorability rating has increased by about 10 percentage points among registered voters since Election Day 2016, to 44 percent from 34 percent, according to Upshot estimates.

Some of these voters probably voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, even though they didn’t like him at the time. But some probably did not vote for him: Republicans with an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Trump were more than twice as likely to stay home on Election Day as those with a favorable view, according to New York Times/Siena surveys of North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania in 2016.

It seems likely that a substantial number of these voters now have a favorable view of the president: Over all, 28 percent of Republican-leaning voters with an unfavorable view of Mr. Trump in 2016 had a favorable view of him by 2018, according to data from the Voter Study Group. The aggregate national data suggests that Mr. Trump has gained more support than that — if not from Republicans then perhaps from some number of independents or former Democrats.

Of course, Democrats might benefit from a more popular candidate than they had in 2016. Hillary Clinton was an unusually unpopular candidate, surpassed only by Mr. Trump in this regard in the modern era of polling. But an analysis that freezes the president’s standing in 2016 but assumes an improvement for the Democratic nominee would be misleading.

At the same time, there are signs that Mr. Trump’s job approval ratings have continued to improve over the first half of the year, since the conclusion of the government shutdown. (In assessing his prospects for 2020, job approval numbers are more meaningful than those for favorability.)

In some periods over the last few months, his job approval rating increased to among the highest levels of his term, according to live-interview telephone polls, long considered the gold standard of public opinion research. In live-interview polls of registered voters since June, Mr. Trump’s job approval rating has averaged 46.4 percent, higher than his 45.9 percent vote share in 2016. (This analysis excludes those respondents who did not offer an opinion about the president.) Curiously, online polls have not shown this same increase; in fact, they’ve shown no increase at all.

As a result, Mr. Trump’s approval rating is now higher in live-interview telephone polls than in online surveys, reversing a trend that dates to the very first days of his campaign. The president’s longstanding relative strength in online polls led many to speculate about a “shy” or “hidden” Trump vote that would divulge its preferences only online — not in live interviews. There was never much evidence for this theory, but if a “shy” Trump vote ever existed, it has either subsided or been canceled out by some newer series of biases in online polls.

The differences seen in the two types of polling are fairly small, a matter of a couple of points. The gap is small enough that it could fade, perhaps even imminently. And his support seems to have fallen a bit in the last month, perhaps because of a series of comments attacking Democratic members of Congress, including telling some of them to go back to the countries they came from. His support could fall further with worsening economic news and in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

It’s true that the president’s job approval rating has been unusually stable when compared with other presidents. But the possibility that he has lifted his ratings, however fleetingly, to match the highest levels of his presidency is a reminder that the ceiling on his support is higher than some may think. There are any number of forces that might knock him back, like a weakening economy, or hold him back, including his conduct on social media. But there’s no reason he’s limited to the support or turnout he had in 2016.

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