A Backwards View of Presidential Approval Ratings in Times of Crisis

Recently in various news sources, it was reported that President Trump had experienced an increase in his presidential approval ratings due to his perceived handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. How does this compare with presidential approval ratings in times of crisis in our past?

A fair comparison is not easy to arrive at given the increased partisanship the U.S. has experienced especially within the past five years. See Pew Research’s new study on how the gap has widened. Plus, the science of poll taking has evolved considerably over time. Still, for what it may be worth, let’s look at how public opinion responded to presidential handling of crises starting with Truman.

TRUMAN: His popularity went down quite a bit from its height of over 80% after entering office to the dumps by 1947 in the mid to lower 40% range. There was considerable reaction against him during that time leading to major GOP gains in the 1946 Congressional elections. But, as the Cold War heated up, his popularity went from a nadir of around 38% after the 1946 elections to over 60% approval with the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine designed to rescue Europe. However, it soon began to decline again to where it looked like he could not possibly be elected in 1948. That was one of the greatest political upsets in our history and led to another spike of support in 1949 of over 60% with the creation of NATO and victory in keeping the Soviets from grabbing West Berlin.

His support steadily declined after that as China went Communist, McCarthyism raised its ugly head and the Korean War turned into a stalemate. His firing of MacArthur sealed his fate politically though he could have run again. He left office with the lowest public approval ratings on record around 24%, just slightly below George W. Bush’s. He also holds the modern record for the lowest overall average of popular support for his term in office at 45.4%.

So, yes, it is true that in popular opinion spiked in the crises that Truman faced.

IKE: His approval ratings are among the most consistently best of any modern President. He never went below 50% and most of the time he was at or slightly above 60%. His overall average was a stunning 65%. His approval ratings spiked to their highest of about 80% from about 70% when he took decisive action during the Little Rock controversy and soon thereafter with his response to Sputnik to call for many to become scientists and mathematicians. They sank to their lowest of close to 50% when his Chief of Staff Adams had to resign due to a major scandal in 1958, but rose after that.

Since Ike didn’t face any major crisis sufficient to impact his approval ratings, we don’t have much to work with here. We LIKED Ike.

JFK: His approval ratings were the highest of any Presidency for his time in office of an average of 70%! He received a spike of approval in response to his standing firm in response to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Went down at first as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco but rose quickly to 83% with his forthright apology for that debacle placing the blame squarely on himself, and rose again with the Cuban missile crisis, declined after that as the Civil Rights issues heated up but spiked up with his response to the March on Washington with his major address on race—the first President to make a strong stance publicly in favor of civil rights.
So, in his case, he also gained support in response to crises, but not in large amounts in large part since his approval ratings rarely dipped much below 60%.

LBJ: He received a huge outpouring of support for how he handled himself after JFK’s murder and that lasted for months at over 80%, but then went down and down and down as a result of the escalation of the Vietnam War. His only spike of support oddly enough came after he announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election. He rarely got as much of 50% support by mid to late 1967 and after. Overall average amounts to 55.1%.


So, yes, he got a huge spike early, but….

NIXON: One might be surprised to find that overall his approval ratings stayed in the above 50% to a bit over 60% for much of his presidency until, you guessed it, Watergate. At first, he gained support even going over 60% in early 1973 but it then collapsed leaving an overall average of 49%. So, no, he didn’t have any significant spikes upward or downward in approval ratings until Watergate.

FORD: It seems unfair to discuss this topic with Ford as he came into office in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. He had good support at first but his controversial pardon (a wise and brave decision) cost him dearly. The fall of Saigon in 1975 was his nadir in support at below 40%, but he saw a significant rise in support after that as his wife Betty Ford came forward on 60 minutes to speak candidly on several topics such as her alcoholism, issues with marijuana and in favor of pro choice in abortion. Ford helped himself by calling for reduced taxes. So, his approval went from below 40% to over 58% before it began to slide downwards leading to his defeat to Carter. He holds the third worst overall support record since WWII of 47.2%


CARTER: He gained significant support as he negotiated lasting peace between Egypt and Israel but saw his popularity decline steadily to the 40% range with a mild spike up to the mid 50s with his efforts to negotiate arms limitations with the Soviets though never ratified, rose to 61% by taking in the Shah of Iran but then his “malaise” speech sealed his political demise along with mishandling the Iran hostage situation.

So, yes, good support for his peace efforts and for showing humanitarian concern for the seriously ill Shah. His overall average of 45.5% approval is just higher than Truman’s for second worst since WWII.

REAGAN: He began with only 51% but gained significant empathetic support as a result of nearly being killed with approval ratings rising to 68% but then the Rust Belt rusted away to a major crisis taking down his approval ratings to the 40% range but those steadily and strongly improved with his handling of major issues such as invading Grenada after which his ratings hovered around the 60% range until Iran contra hit the news bringing his approval ratings down in the lower 40% range. He recouped his support quickly though with going public with a heartfelt apology in March of 1987 for Iran Contra and gained more support with his superb discussions with Gorbachev leading to an Intermediate Missile Reduction Treaty.

So, yes, his approval ratings went up strongly not once but twice in response to serious crises. His overall average stands at 52.8% and that was lowered by the length of the recession.


GEORGE H.W. BUSH: He is a strong case for gaining very strong approval for a crisis with his handling of Saddam’s grab of Kuwait where his support quickly soared from around 57% to an incredible high of 89% within little over a month’s time Amazing support but that soon dissipated to about 29%, a loss of 60%!!! as a result of a recession and other issues. It was “the economy, stupid” that did him in along with his breaking his election campaign promise to “read my lips” about no new taxes. Still, his overall average approval stands at 60.9%.

THE PARTISAN DIVIDE GROWS

BILL CLINTON: His popularity declined quickly in the midst of 1993 with the perceived mishandling of Waco to a bit below 40% to see it quickly rise to near 60% with his Oslo I accords between the PLO and Israel. They declined soon thereafter back into the 40% range with Mogadishu but rose steadily after that with the start towards welfare reform and helping facilitate a lasting peace between Israel and Jordan. Still, he will only win with 49% of the vote in 1996. After that, his approval range improved to the 60% range and while scandal after scandal emerged none hurt his approval ratings much.

The public felt he had done so well at a variety of things such as helping bring lasting peace in Northern Ireland, getting NAFTA approved, having budget surpluses, and more that the scandals just didn’t make much of a difference. Impeachment actually improved his support to as high as 62-3%. And, he stayed in the 60% range for the rest of his Presidency. His overall average was 55.1%. His will be the first Presidential administration where there will be virtually unrelenting Congressional partisan efforts to find scandals to harm the presidency.
So, in his case, his approval ratings did go up in crises even in the midst of scandals.

Starting with his Presidency, the partisan divide has sharply increased. The main reasons would be: (1) the creation of Fox News which was designed to go after the “main steam media” for purveying fake news and intending to bring Clinton down; (2) the growing impact of Prot evangelicals siding with the GOP thus a tendency to see the “other” as somehow evil; (3) the rampant impact of gerrymandering making the real elections be the primaries thus bringing more “true believers” to Congress from both parties with little inclination to compromise; and, (4) the successful efforts made by folks like Gingrich, Falwell and Schafly to use wedge issues like abortion and gun control to divide the public more so as to enable the GOP to have a better chance to win elections. Clinton’s average support from Dems was 80% and from Reps at 27 for a whopping 53% differential.

W: The partisan divide continued here with an average GOP support for W. at 81% and Dem at 23% for a differential of 58%. W. started out with decent support at around 60% but then took the sharpest increase in the history of Polls due to his handling of 9/11 to close to 90% within less than a month. That declined to his starting point of around 60% by the start of 2003 and then spiked about 10% with his surge. But, that gain was soon wiped out by the chaos in Iraq and it was a steady downhill movement from there to where he wound up with the second worst public approval rating of around 25%.

Like his Dad, he had a spectacular outpouring of support in a very short time but lost it. By and large, however, he was spared unrelenting efforts by his political opposition to find scandals to harm his presidency.

OBAMA: He had entered office hoping to help heal the partisan divide. However, he was never given a chance to do it. On the very evening of his first inaugural, the GOP leaders met to decide to do all they could to make sure he was unsuccessful and thus be a one term President. They were aided by the birther movement and Obama is a Muslim craze both designed to delegitimize him as NOT BEING a “real” American.

Though he had inherited huge crises, the GOP was not about to work with him so one doesn’t see any significant spikes upward in his approval ratings except for taking down Bin Laden which gained him a quickly evaporated 7% gain. He will wind up with an average approval rating of 47% though he started at around 60 and left office at that rate. He was much more popular overseas as in Europe than here.

One can’t help but compare his situation with the aftermath of the bitterly contested 2000 election. Gore and the Dems conceded reasonably gracefully and did NOT band together to make W. unsuccessful. The 2008 election stands out as the first Presidential election since 1860 where the losers refused to accept the results. There were many, many GOP inspired Congressional hearings designed to harm Obama’s presidency. Now, the Dems have been copycats with Trump. Some feel they’ve gone too fur.

TRUMP: His average support to date has been 40%, the lowest on record. Recently, it grew to 49 % for finally taking charge of the Covid-19 outbreak. His low was 35% which he has hit several times. His partisan divide is even worse than Obama’s with average GOP support at 84% while average Dem support has been 16% for a differential of a staggering 67%. Now, contrary to the GOP on the evening of Obama’s first inaugural, the Dems did not agree to do all they could to make him unsuccessful. Indeed, there have been a number of bipartisan bills of quite some import passed.

On the other hand, the Dems pushed for impeachment without making sure they had bipartisan support. Same mistake the GOP made with Clinton but while that cost the GOP electorally that has not happened with the Dems. The Dems did not lose significant support though many pundits were sure they would.

A TENTATIVE CONCLUSION

With the growing partisan divide, it is unlikely that Trump or any President will experience the kind of sharp outpourings of support that several previous Presidents received during times of crisis. This does not augur well for our future. Trump made much of his popularity increase, but it was small by comparison of the even spectacular gains made by several presidents earlier.

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