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The President’s Popularity and the Midterm Election

Mark Baldassare January 18, 2018
WhiteHouse

California is a battleground state in the 2018 midterm election. When it comes to determining the party that will lead the next US Congress, all eyes are on the 14 US House seats that are currently held by Republicans in the deep-blue state of California. Democrats would need to “flip” several of these seats if they have any chance of taking control of the US House, where Republicans currently now have a 26-vote margin. The party in power has typically lost some of its congressional seats in national midterm elections. Whether it is a few seats or many is closely tied to the president’s popularity. So, how is Donald Trump viewed in California at the end of his first-year anniversary in office?

The PPIC Statewide Survey has been tracking President Trump’s popularity, asking the following question in six monthly surveys in 2017, “Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way that Donald Trump is handling his job as president of the United States?” We found majority disapproval of President Trump among California likely voters in each survey. In the January 2017 PPIC survey, conducted in his early days in office, 34% approved and 55% disapproved of his job performance. In the 2017 December PPIC survey, which is our most recent poll, 34% approved and 63% disapproved of President Trump. In the course of 2017, disapproval of the president increased as more likely voters formed opinions about his leadership.

By the end of the first year, we also found that disapproval of President Trump increased by double digits in several likely voter groups. In comparing the January 2017 PPIC survey to the December 2017 PPIC survey, disapproval increased

  • 21 points for those younger than 35 (63% to 84%)
  • 15 points among independent (i.e. no party preference) voters (50% to 65%)
  • 12 points among college graduates (62% to 74%)
  • 12 points among those who earn under $40,000 a year (57% to 69%)
  • 11 points for those who earn $80,000 or more (55% to 66%)
  • 10 points among Latinos (72% to 82%)

Moreover, from January to December 2017 disapproval became the majority response among men (49% to 58%), those age 55 and older (49% to 57%), and those with some college education (50% to 58%).

Regional trends in presidential disapproval ratings also point to a challenging environment for Republicans running in House elections this year. Predictably, there is overwhelming disapproval of President Trump in the Democratic strongholds of Los Angeles (75%) and San Francisco (73%) in the December 2017 PPIC survey. More surprisingly, over the course of 2017 disapproval of Trump’s performance increased to majority levels in Orange/San Diego (50% to 58%) and the Inland Empire (39% to 55%), where several of the House seats that are now held by Republicans are located. Coincidentally, two Republican House members in Orange/San Diego decided not to run for reelection.

There are two bright spots for Republicans in the president’s approval ratings. First, President Trump has held a solid base of support among Republican likely voters, according to a comparison of the January 2017 PPIC survey (76% approve) and the December 2017 PPIC survey (78% approve). Second, his approval increased to a majority in the Central Valley according to a comparison of the January 2017 PPIC survey (40%) and the December 2017 PPIC survey (55%). Importantly, several of the House seats now held by Republicans are in the Central Valley.

Finally, in placing the 2018 midterm election in recent historical context, it is especially noteworthy that the level of disapproval of President Trump at the end of his first year in office is relatively high compared to the past two US presidents. The December 2009 PPIC survey found that a majority of California likely voters approved of President Barack Obama (54% approve, 40% disapprove) in the midst of the Great Recession. The December 2001 PPIC survey found that overwhelming majorities approved of President George W. Bush (78% approve, 20% disapprove) in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

In California, the combination of presidential disapproval ratings (63%) and voter registration trends (45% Democrat to 26% Republican) sets the stage for the Republicans’ efforts to hold on to House seats to maintain control of the US Congress. However, the wildcard in the 2018 California election is the size and composition of the voter turnout—and in the 2014 midterm election, turnout hit a record low.

The PPIC Statewide Survey will be closely monitoring President Trump’s approval ratings, as well as indicators of the voters who are motivated to cast ballots in what will be a consequential election for California and the nation.

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