Last night, when I was looking at the graph of Trump’s approval rating on FiveThirtyEight, my friend Charles said it reminded him of a brainwave activity graph. There’s no clear logic to any of the movements up and down, and past a certain point, the numbers don’t really stray beyond what’s expected from the random sampling of polls.
All that you can really make out is a general trend from about an even approval in early 2017 to almost -20 by the end of the year, when the unpopular tax cuts were passed. (It was also when the Republicans lost an embarrassing election in Alabama.) From there, it goes up and down but narrows to about -10 from May 2018 until a few weeks ago. If you needed to, it’d be impossible to find any important Trump-related event in that time: Charlottesville, separating families, the Kavanaugh confirmation, defending Saudi Arabia — nothing really registered in the polls.
That’s what makes the shutdown so strange: almost immediately after it started, Trump’s approval rating started to tank. At the start on December 22nd , it was -10, then -12 a week later, to -15 recently, which is just over a percent per week. That might not sound like much, but it’s very bad for Trump over time. If the shutdown lasts another 6 weeks at that rate, he’d be at his highest unpopularity ever, -21. For context, Richard Nixon was at about -40 when he left office in disgrace.
In a few weeks, food stamps will run out of money, likely causing even more food lines like the ones set up in DC for furloughed workers. Up to this point, TSA workers have showed up to work without pay. Airport security delays have been isolated to a few terminals in big airports, which probably happens occasionally in normal operation. Eventually, those workers will quit and find other jobs, causing real disruptions to air travel. Even the Border Patrol, probably the sole Trump-supporting federal agency, is working without pay. Right now they’re backing Trump, but at some point they’ll get angry that he’s the reason they can’t afford their rent and mortgages. (Some CBP agents already are.) As the effects of the shutdown become more visible and severe, Trump’s popularity should plunge even quicker.
Trump’s past experience of scandals and denial of reality probably means that he’ll be slow to pick up on the fact that the shutdown is really hurting him. For now, though, chances are he thinks that the only people being hurt would never vote for him anyway, or that the shutdown will just play on partisan lines, like Charlottesville or Kavanaugh did. Eventually, he’ll have to realize that the public is blaming him for the shutdown, but for now the end is probably at least a week away, with neither side really backing down to the demands of the other.