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As Trump's first year in office ends, his support base has eroded and the opposition is energized

As Trump's first year in office ends, his support base has eroded and the opposition is energized
It will be a year Saturday since President Trump marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in his inaugural parade. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Donald Trump began his presidency a polarizing figure; he ends his first year a beleaguered one.

As the anniversary of Trump's inauguration approaches on Saturday, the president's support has eroded, his opposition has gained energy and his party faces bleak prospects for the midterm elections in November, according to a new USC-Dornsife/Los Angeles Times nationwide poll.

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Just under one-third of those polled, 32%, approved of Trump's job performance, compared with 55% who disapproved and 12% who were neutral. That 23-point deficit represents a significant decline since April and the last USC/L.A. Times national poll, which found Trump with a 7-point approval deficit, 40% to 47%.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Looking just at residents of 11 key swing states, Trump's standing is virtually the same — 33% approve, 54% disapprove — evidence that his problem goes far beyond the big, Democratic coastal states.

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Moreover, opposition to him has intensified — 42% in the poll said they disapproved strongly of Trump's job performance, up from 35% in April. A much smaller group, 15%, voiced strong approval, down slightly from April.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

The 55% disapproval closely matches the average of other recent, nonpartisan polls; the 32% approval is several points lower than the average, most likely because the USC/L.A. Times poll explicitly gives people the option of saying they neither approve nor disapprove, which not all polls do.

Widespread disapproval of Trump's performance has also dragged down his party's standing. Asked which party's candidates they would favor if the congressional elections were being held today, those polled sided with the Democrats by 11 points, 51% for Democrats to 40% for the Republicans.

Democrats have held their own supporters better than Republicans have: Eight in 10 people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 said they definitely would vote for a Democrat for Congress if the election were held now. Just two-thirds of people who voted for Trump had a similarly definite intention of voting for a Republican.

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History indicates that with a double-digit lead on the congressional ballot question, "the Democrats would be very likely to take the House" in November, said Robert Shrum, the veteran Democratic strategist who directs USC's Unruh Institute of Politics, which co-sponsored the poll. "The Republicans could be in real trouble."

That result comes despite the poll's finding of widespread optimism about the economic future, which normally would boost the party in power.

The poll was mostly completed before the Oval Office meeting last week in which Trump used a vulgar word to describe African countries and said he would prefer to see more immigrants from places such as Norway. As a result, the poll doesn't reflect any change in Trump's standing that may have come from those remarks, which many Democrats, and some Republicans, have labeled racist.

The poll was conducted online from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 among 3,862 respondents drawn from a panel designed to accurately reflect the country's demographics. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of 2 percentage points in either direction. Panel members are part of a continuing research project into public opinion by USC's Center for Economic and Social Research, the poll's other co-sponsor.

In 2016, the poll repeatedly forecast a Trump victory in the election.

Throughout Trump's first year, he has focused heavily — indeed, almost exclusively — on tending to his core supporters, what the president often refers to as his "base." Trump has used divisive issues such as immigration and controversies such as his criticism of NFL players who "took a knee" during the national anthem to rev up the enthusiasm of his backers.

In 2016, his focus on the base succeeded — just barely — in getting Trump the votes he needed in key states to beat Clinton.

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Since then, Trump's support has remained mostly solid among groups that have backed him heavily since he won the GOP nomination: Residents of rural areas rate his job performance positively 51% to 38%; whites who identify as evangelical Christians approve 63% to 28%; and self-identified Republicans approve 74% to 16%.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)
 
  (Los Angeles Times)
 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Among white voters, those without a college education approve of Trump's work by a narrower margin, 49% to 37%. Those with a college degree disapprove by more than 2 to 1, 65% to 28%.

But the exclusive focus on his base leaves very little margin for defections, and over the last year, Trump has suffered some.

Because the USC/L.A. Times poll questions the same people repeatedly over time, it can track those defections: About one in eight people who said in April that they approved of Trump's job performance now say they disapprove.

Most of those who had not made up their minds in April now have done so, and by almost 2 to 1, they have gone against Trump.

"The people who were 'waiting to see' in the spring have mostly moved toward disapproval," said Jill Darling, survey director for the USC economic and social research center.

Even among those who voted for him, Trump's popularity is tepid. Asked to rate him on a 0-100 thermometer, Trump voters gave the president personally an average score of 64. His policies won a score of 72. By contrast, the antipathy from Clinton voters was intense — they gave Trump a personal score of 7 and a policy score of 9.

Other questions on the poll also indicate problems for the president. A majority, 52%, said he has done less than he said he would do, with 31% saying "much less." Only 12% said he has accomplished more than he pledged, while 30% said he has done about what he said. Those numbers, too, have deteriorated from April.

Similarly, asked whether the phrase "keeps his promises" applies to Trump, 54% said it did not, compared to 46% who said it did. That's almost a mirror image of the split that favored Trump on that question in April.

The poll results indicate that voters may be "ready to potentially punish the president," said Mike Murphy, the longtime Republican strategist who has been one of Trump's most persistent party critics.

Trump has focused only on the sort of voters who boosted him in the Republican primaries in 2016, he said.

"Now he's facing a general election with a lot of voters he's alienated," Murphy added, calling that "a huge problem for the party."

Indeed, the poll indicates that Trump is clearly on the minority side of some of the controversies he has stoked.

On immigration, for example, 62% agreed with the statement that "immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talent" compared with 38% who said "immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare."

Trump voters expressed the reverse opinion from the rest of the country. By 63% to 37%, they described immigrants as a burden.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Similarly, on the issue of women's vulnerability to discrimination, and especially sexual harassment, by 60% to 40%, Americans said significant obstacles remain to women getting ahead.

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Trump has expressed skepticism of women's claims of discrimination, especially sexual harassment — siding, for example, with unsuccessful Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct by several women, and calling his own accusers liars.

Trump voters, the poll showed, also question women's claims of discrimination. By 58% to 42%, they said they believed "the obstacles that once made it harder for women than men to get ahead are now largely gone" rather than "there are still significant obstacles that make it harder for women to get ahead."

The divide was closer on a question about discrimination overall: By 54% to 46%, Americans said that "people not seeing discrimination where it really does exist" was a bigger problem than "people seeing discrimination where it really does not exist." A majority of whites, 56%, said inaccurate claims about discrimination were the bigger problem.

A question about discrimination specifically against blacks drew a response less sympathetic to claims of mistreatment. Sixty percent of those polled said that "blacks who can't get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition," while 40% said "racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can't get ahead these days."

Seven out of 10 African Americans, 69%, identified racial discrimination as the main reason holding blacks back, but an almost equally large majority of whites disagreed. Latinos were more closely divided, but a majority, 53%, identified personal responsibility as the main issue.

The results on some other questions appeared to mirror overall support or opposition to Trump. Overall, 59% called the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election a "serious matter that should be fully investigated," while 41% saw it as "mainly an effort to discredit" Trump — a finding that divided sharply along partisan lines.

Among Republicans, 81% called it an effort to discredit and 19% called it serious. Among Democrats, the divide was reversed, 89% to 11%. Independents sided more with the Democrats, 64% to 36%.

In this midterm election year, Republicans face an opposition energized by deep antipathy to the president. Among residents of urban areas, for example, over half not only disapprove of Trump, but say they "disapprove strongly." Strong disapproval also comes from nearly half the residents of Western states, 48% of women nationwide, 52% of Latinos and 71% of African Americans.

That disapproval drives the midterm forecast, said Democratic strategist Doug Herman, one of the consultants for the poll.

In recent midterm elections, Republicans, who tend to be older and more affluent, typically have been more consistent voters than Democrats, giving their party an advantage in contests with lower turnout than in presidential election years. That GOP edge has disappeared in the current climate, Herman noted.

When the poll asked people how likely they were to vote, the Democratic advantage held steady in either a low-turnout or a high-turnout scenario.

Of course, the election isn't being held today, and Republican strategists have pinned their hopes on turning around voter opinions over the next 10 months. Party leaders say they believe that current good economic conditions will provide an opening.

The poll does show widespread optimism about the economy. Asked if they believed their families would be better or worse off financially a year from now, 38% said they expected improvement, while 48% said they expected things to stay the same. Only 13% predicted a worsening.

So far, however, that sort of optimism has not helped Republicans. In special elections over the last year, Democrats consistently have performed better than historical patterns would have predicted.

Tuesday, in the latest example, a Democrat won a special election in a blue-collar, white district of western Wisconsin for a state legislative seat that Republicans had held since 2001. Trump had carried the district solidly in 2016. Scott Walker, the state's Republican governor, called the result a "wake up call" for his party.

For more on politics and policy, follow me on Twitter @DavidLauter.

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