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Can the Democrats Win a Popularity Contest?

As the party trims down its field of primary contenders ahead of the 2020 election, it shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Donald Trump is one of the least popular presidents in history

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Donald Trump has the lowest average approval rating of any president since Gallup began conducting opinion polls in 1935. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all eclipsed Trump’s lowest polling numbers at some point in their presidencies. But Trump’s approval rating has never surpassed 50 percent; he peaked at 46 percent in April. Trump’s supporters adore him, of course—90 percent of Republican voters believe he’s doing “a great job” as president—but most voters would prefer pretty much anyone else in November 2020.

Donald Trump is, unambiguously, an unpopular president.

Trump’s unpopularity has become the central paradox of his political career: Despite his low approval rating among American voters, Democrats and Republicans fear Trump more vividly than they’ve feared any other president in modern history. Trump won the 2016 presidential election if only because the Democratic Party nominated Hillary Clinton, who happened to be the second-least-popular politician in the country, to run against him. Coincidentally, Clinton spent her 2016 Democratic primary campaign reveling in a similar paradox: Moderate Democrats positioned Clinton as the party’s leader even though she was one of the most loathed politicians in the country.

“Popularity” is a tricky, ephemeral substance that Trump has handled with an alchemist’s gloves: Gleefully, Trump crafted his popular appeal through pathological fraudulence. From his 2015 campaign launch through his inauguration in 2017, Trump exaggerated the size of crowds at his events, and his campaign paid freelance actors to attend his rallies. There was a time before he took office when Democrats and Republicans were unified in their assessment that Trump’s “popularity” was, in large part, a fabrication, much like Trump’s wealth. In the paranoid pundit’s imagination, Trump’s core supporters somehow form a rugged, rural supermajority who monopolize the national identity beyond the biggest cities and the priciest college campuses. Trump’s popularity is the new national myth. First, the myth was preposterous. Now, it is the conventional wisdom that defines the 2020 presidential election.

Democrats have spent the past few years agonizing about Trump’s so-called popularity. Many Democrats are convinced that former vice president Joe Biden is too popular to fail in 2020. Biden polls consistently higher than his many Democratic primary rivals by a double-digit margin; he leads Trump by 8 points, the largest deficit Trump faces against a Democratic candidate in the many hypothetical general election matchups. Biden has a much higher approval rating than Trump or Clinton: His unfavorable rating is about 20 percentage points lower than Clinton’s was in the year before the 2016 general election. Of course, Biden is just one of several Democrats whom most voters would prefer to Trump in a general election. Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, two radically dissimilar Democrats, happen to be the highest-polling presidential candidates. Sanders’s socialism may be scandalous among conservative columnists, but it’s more popular than Trumpism, which is the most divisive and counterproductive movement in U.S. politics.

Polls consistently depict the upcoming election as an unpopular president facing a reinvigorated opposition party in the 2020 general election. But you wouldn’t guess as much when reading post-Trump commentary, which tends to characterize Trumpism as a massive, overwhelming force that will eviscerate any Democratic challenger who isn’t Biden. Supposedly, Trump has the support of white, working-class voters and has annexed the national identity altogether. The Democrats, the thinking goes, should be careful, if not fearful: They might lose to Trump by nominating a presidential candidate who isn’t, essentially, a Republican.

The pundits regard Trump as far more popular than the polls have ever revealed the president to be, and they regard every non-Biden Democratic candidate as more divisive and potentially disastrous than any polls seem to suggest. The misdirection ensures that yet another Democratic presidential primary will obsess over “electability,” a meta, nebulous concept that assumes the substantive policy differences between Biden and Sanders (and the couple dozen candidates positioned alongside them) are frivolous, tertiary concerns. The anti-Trump faction within the Republican Party has lost its clout, and it struggles to accept that the Democratic Party has rejected its influence too. Meanwhile, moderate Democrats resent Sanders, socialism, and left-wing identity politics, and point to Biden as the prohibitive counterbalance to the implementation of left-wing politics at the national level. They cite Biden’s popularity as confidently as they once cited Clinton’s polling numbers in hypothetical matchups against the Republican nominee. It’s 2016 all over again, though Trump is more popular in the imagination of Democrats than ever, even if he’s less popular with the voters they court.