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Explaining Our Indifference to Presidential Character

When it comes to presidential scandals, is all press really good press?
President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House on September 12th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House on September 12th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Understanding public opinion in the age of Donald Trump is tricky. It would be wrong to conclude, as many have, that "nothing matters." But exactly what matters isn't precisely clear, and how Trump compares to previous presidents is actually quite important.

Twenty years ago, political scientist John Zaller wrote a brief article called "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science." Zaller was seeking to explain a recent puzzle in public opinion behavior: In the first 10 days of the Lewinsky scandal, amid some of the worst press coverage a president might ever experience, Bill Clinton's approval rating rose by around 10 points. How could that make any sense? Were Americans mostly approving of his illicit affair with an intern less than half his age?

The answer, Zaller argued, was that the affair itself really didn't change many people's minds about Clinton. Rather, the dramatic increase in press coverage of the presidency gave the scandal the air of campaign season. It forced Americans, normally not attuned to politics, to pay attention and take stock of the political environment. And as they did so, they noticed the nation was mostly at peace and enjoying a period of low unemployment and strong economic growth.

Zaller concludes that "The public is, within broad limits, functionally indifferent to presidential character." Though Republicans seemed convinced that mounting evidence against Clinton's character would  generate a massive political backlash against him, their efforts to remove him from office found little public support. In fact, Clinton remains one of the only presidents to leave office more popular than when he entered.

Can the lesson from the Clinton years also be applied to Trump? The economy under Trump bears some similarity to what it was late in Clinton's term, with unemployment under 4 percent and consumer sentiment near historic peaks. As Ezra Klein noted a few months ago, Trump is far less popular than he should be given the conditions of the economy.

How much less popular? Monkey Cage editor-in-chief John Sides offered an interesting take on this, noting that. from the 1960s through the 2000s, there was a pretty strong correlation between economic performance and presidential popularity. Judging from this, Trump is around 20 points less popular than he should be.

Now, Sides notes an important caveat: The correlation between a strong economy and elevated popularity didn't seem to hold for President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings remained solid despite a fluctuating economy. The best explanation for this is timing: Obama came into office not just already relatively popular, but amid some of the most serious economic conditions in modern history. He avoided blame for the worst of the Recession, which began under his predecessor. But this also raises the question of whether the relationship between the economy and presidential approval still holds.

So this leaves us with two divergent conclusions about Trump's mysteriously low approval ratings.

  • First, Trump's own behavior—the tweeting, the bigotry, the insults, etc.—is suppressing his approval ratings. Yes, Clinton showed us that voters are indifferent to presidential character, but as Zaller reminded us, this indifference was "within broad limits." It's possible that Trump's daily assaults on presidential norms lie outside those limits.
  • The second option is that, thanks to party polarization, presidential approval is now unaffected by economic performance.

To me, the first explanation seems more plausible. The results of the 2016 election strongly suggested that the economy still plays a strong role in people's political evaluations. And it's not like the nation wasn't polarized during George W. Bush's presidency, which did suffer politically when the economy soured.

This all suggests Trump's own behavior is costing him and his party dearly. One of the ramifications of this will come about in the November mid-term elections; mid-term forecasting suggests that each point of a president's approval ratings translates to a bit more than one House seat. If Trump were, as the Monkey Cage's Sides suggested, 20 points more popular, Republicans could expect to lose 23 fewer seats in the House of Representatives. That could easily spell the difference between continued Republican control and a Democratic takeover.

When Bob Dole was running against Clinton in 1996, one of his favorite expressions was "Where's the outrage?" We seem to have found it.