President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have just about recovered all of the ground lost during the partial government shutdown. He’s back up to 42.5 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average estimate, the best number he’s had since the beginning of the shutdown. His disapproval rating is 53.2 percent, an improvement, but still higher than when it started climbing in mid-December, around the time he threatened to close the government and accept the blame. At the low point during the shutdown, Trump’s approval rating was 39.3 percent and disapproval was 56 percent.
Even if he’s doing better, he’s still in pretty bad shape: Compared with all the presidencies of the polling era (starting with Harry Truman), Trump’s approval level through 762 days in office beats only Ronald Reagan’s and Jimmy Carter’s at this point in their tenure. Reagan’s big rally was about to start as a recession was ending.
People have short memories when it comes to politics. Trump’s approval ratings have been in the low 40s for most of the past year, but the reaction to the shutdown was real and fairly steep. And yet as soon as the standoff was over, his numbers snapped back to normal fairly quickly, even though people really disliked the shutdown and blamed him for it, and even though most reporting said he had surrendered to end it. This suggests that those who have mixed feelings about Trump (mostly Republicans, because almost no Democrats have any doubts about disliking him) are willing to say they like him as long as there’s no direct, current reason to say otherwise.
It’s not clear whether it was the real-world effects of the shutdown or the negative news reports that temporarily hurt Trump, but there’s a good chance it was the latter. A previous dip, beginning in late August, seems to have been in response to news – the Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen cases as well as the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times from inside his administration and the release of Bob Woodward’s book – that generated negative stories and headlines, but didn’t personally affect members of the public.
The other important lesson is that the strongest supporters stay that way. Pundits speculated that Trump had to win on the border wall because his core backers really cared, and he would be in serious trouble if they deserted him. But when Trump surrendered at the end of the shutdown, his approval numbers went up (as marginal supporters returned), not down, as they would have if wall-lovers had been bitterly disappointed. The reason is that any politician’s strongest supporters are likely to interpret the news through whatever that politician says, including when defeats are presented as victories.
For the most part, voters will judge an issue or event to be important if the political system, and their favorite politicians, say it is. So a lot of Republicans believed for years that repealing Obamacare was absolutely urgent, but once Republican politicians stopped talking about it as much, these voters were likely to just move on to something else. (The same is basically true about Democratic voters and their politicians).
There are exceptions: federal workers during the shutdown or soybean farmers hit by tariffs weren’t so easily distracted. And party actors may care more about specific policy questions than regular voters, which can prevent presidents from ignoring them. Even so, the general point holds that most voters aren’t going to punish their favorite politicians for falling short.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.