Related Topics
Economy , Social Mood
Share This Page         

Trump’s “Honeymoon Phase”: Why Low Approval Ratings Matter

Does history become irrelevant just because you're in “uncharted territory”?

by Alexandra Lienhard
Updated: January 27, 2017

In this new interview, Senior Editor and host of our podcast Pop Trends, Price Culture, Robert Folsom, explains that a real honeymoon means a "happy couple" -- and so far, Donald Trump hasn't made his "bride" -- namely, the public -- happy.

Robert Folsom has covered politics, popular culture, economics and the financial markets for more than 25 years, via print, radio, video and digital content. He's the host of Pop Trends, Price Culture, the podcast with strong opinions and strong language about the intersection of psychology and markets. Download or listen online now (it's free).

********

[Editor's note: the text version of this interview is below.]

Alexandra Lienhard: Polling, pollsters, and the polls themselves -- a huge issue before the U.S. presidential election, and arguably just a big, if not a bigger of an issue, now. Joining me today to offer some insight is Robert Folsom, Senior Editor for Elliott Wave International and host of the popular podcast Pop Trends, Price Culture. Now Robert, you've dug deep into the history of polling, how did we get here?

Robert Folsom: The first time that election polling itself became a story goes all the way back to the presidential election of 1936. Going into that year, there was a widely read weekly American magazine called Literary Digest. It had correctly called the previous 5 presidential elections. In 1936, Literary Digest predicted that Franklin Roosevelt would lose in a landslide. Well, they were right about the landslide, but they were wrong about Roosevelt -- because FDR won 46 of 48 states. Literary Digest never recovered from that failure, and they were out of business within about two years.

But 1936 was also the year that George Gallup did his first election poll, and he correctly forecasted that FDR would win. And this allowed him to take over the credibility that Literary Digest had lost. Soon Gallup expanded from just election polling and started to do broader monthly opinion surveys. In the 1940s, he began to ask the American public a very straightforward question, and it went like this: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Harry Truman, or Kennedy, or Reagan, or Obama is handling his job as president? And over time, the collective reply to that question has arguably become the most closely followed answer in presidential politics -- and that's true now more than ever.

Alexandra: And that is the presidential job approval rating we still hear and talk about today?

Robert: Yes, that's the one. That question of approval -- job approval -- is so crucial to a new president because historically it quantifies why presidential honeymoon is more than just a media phrase. In the first 100 or so days in office, new presidents have always enjoyed an especially strong popularity and good will -- and that matters for a lot of reasons. Just for starters, it helps a new president to get legislation passed. FDR, for example, had 76 bills passed into laws in his first 100 days. Presidents also issue large numbers of executive orders, and every president in the post-war period -- from Truman to Obama -- has been inaugurated with a good-to-very-high approval rating, usually above 60%. And again, we know this because that's what the data tells us.

Alexandra: Now, that honeymoon period you're talking about, that's not the case now. President Trump has an extremely low approval rating as he begins his term.

Robert: That's correct. In fact, he starts his term with a rating somewhere between 44 and 32% depending on whether you ask Gallup, or Fox, or NBC, or Wall Street Journal. And in the history of polling, no elected president has ever started with an approval rating that's below 50%.

Now, I have to say it is possible that with his public approval this low, maybe Trump has nowhere to go except higher in the polls. Except, that's not how it goes for presidents after the first 100 days, because the honeymoon comes to an end. And within the first year, or at most the second year, the president's job approval, it will go down, usually to below 50%. Sometimes it recovers, but not always. Of all the presidents since World War II, only Eisenhower and Kennedy actually kept their approval rating above 50% the entire time they were in office. Again, I am aware that we're in unchartered territory and that Trump has managed to defy political history at every turn.

Alexandra: Unchartered territory, Trump defying history, all that being said, should we stop caring about history?

Robert: No, I don't think that's a good idea. Unchartered territory or not, water is still wet. If you cut yourself, you'll probably still bleed. The thing is, a real honeymoon, what that means is a happy couple. Since the election, Trump has not done very much to make his bride, namely the broad public, happy. It's hard to imagine that FDR could've had 76 bills passed in the first 100 days if he had started with an approval rating down near 40%.

Today's gold standard in polling is Pew Research, and of all the copious poll data in the news since the election, for me the biggest jaw dropper did come from Pew. And it has to do with a question they asked about the public's expectations for the economy. And their question was, "Will the nation's economy be better a year from now?" They published a chart that sorted the answers by party affiliation, and what it showed was the depth of polarization in the United States today, more than any other example I've seen. At the same time, it also showed, or reflected, what I call the danger of over-inflated expectations. 15% of democrats think the economy will be better in a year; 33% of independents think so; and 75% of republicans say the economy will be better a year from now.

Alexandra: So, if economic expectations are a bit lofty in the next 12 months, is the table set for disappointment?

Robert: I'll put it this way, the Dow Industrials and U.S. Gross Domestic Product, they both hit historic lows in early 2009. What that means is that stocks and the economy are now going into their ninth year of growth. Perhaps I'm stating the obvious, but the longer a rally or expansion lasts, the harder it is to sustain it. So yes, the table is definitely set for disappointment.

Alexandra: Well, we're certainly living in some historic times. Thanks for offering these insights.

Robert: Pleasure to talk to you.

Robert Folsom has covered politics, popular culture, economics and the financial markets for more than 25 years, via print, radio, video and digital content. He's the host of Pop Trends, Price Culture, the podcast with strong opinions and strong language about the intersection of psychology and markets. Download or listen online now (it's free).