For months, as Donald Trump lurched from controversy to controversy, commentators marveled that his voters remained loyal: Trump is impervious to political attack, some said.
Not so. Trump wasn't immune; analysts were just failing to look at the whole board.
While Trump’s polarizing campaign did not dent his standing with core supporters in the Republican primaries, it took a punishing toll on how the rest of the electorate views him. Trump’s image, which was poor even before he ran for president, has plunged to an unequaled low. Among scores of major political figures measured in polls over the last 30 years, Trump’s numbers are the worst.
If Trump were to win the GOP presidential nomination with his current public image, he would be the most unpopular nominee in the history of U.S. opinion surveys, veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart said in an email.
“By a lot,” he added.
The share of Americans with an unfavorable view of Trump is extraordinary: 68% in the most recent Bloomberg poll, 67% in the CNN/ORC survey, 67% in the ABC/Washington Post poll, 65% from Gallup. The 57% unfavorable rating he received in the most recent CBS/New York Times survey looks mild by comparison.
Comparable numbers are difficult to find, particularly over a sustained period. Even during the worst of the Vietnam War, for example, only 38% of Americans in Gallup polls gave an unfavorable rating to President Lyndon B. Johnson, although all public figures and institutions received more favorable rankings in that era.
More recently, former Vice President Dick Cheney hit a 60% unfavorable rating during the closing years of the George W. Bush administration. President Clinton’s topped 50% during the crisis over his affair with a White House intern. Newt Gingrich's unpopularity exceeded 60% for a short time during his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. President George H.W. Bush's unfavorable level also hit 60% when he went down to defeat in his reelection effort in 1992.
None of them was as broadly unpopular as Trump is.
One who was? Richard Nixon. In 1975, a year after his resignation during the Watergate scandal, Gallup found that 71% of Americans gave Nixon an unfavorable rating. The firm did not ask about Nixon’s favorability during the year he resigned.
Trump, who famously likes to brag about his standing in polls, focuses on surveys that measure him in the GOP race. But only about 4 in 10 Americans currently identify as Republicans. As Trump’s standing demonstrates, a politician can have a solid hold on a large chunk of one party and still be terribly unpopular with the rest.
That deep aversion to Trump poses an enormous potential problem for the GOP, his opponents within the party warn.
Already, the share of American voters who identify themselves as Democrats has started to tick upward, Gallup reported Friday, hitting 46%, the level measured after President Obama’s reelection. The share identifying themselves as Republicans has dropped to 40%. As recently as October, the two parties were tied at 42% each. Obama’s job approval rating has also risen in numerous surveys. Pollsters say his rise could reflect voters comparing him with the potential Republican replacements.
To win the November election, a Republican nominee either will need to carry about 30% of minority voters, almost twice the level Mitt Romney received in 2012, or get even more white voters than the two-thirds President Reagan carried in his reelection landslide in 1984, cautioned Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who advised Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.
“Donald Trump has almost no chance of doing either one,” he said. With Trump’s deep unpopularity among black and Latino voters, “he’s going backward” among minorities, Ayres added. As for white voters, Trump would have great difficulty coming anywhere close to Reagan’s level because of his unpopularity with women, he said.
Indeed, it’s negative feelings about Trump among women that account for a large share of his unpopularity, numerous polls show.
Women account for Trump’s worsening standing on the question of whether he’s suited to be president. A newly released survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 44% of voters said Trump would make a “terrible” president, an answer cited by more women since the organization last asked in January. Another 15% of voters said he would be a “poor” president. Of the five current candidates in the Republican and Democratic fields, he was the only one rated “terrible” or “poor” by a majority.
Gallup found that Republican men tend to view Trump favorably, 61% positive to 36% negative. But among Republican women, the verdict is almost even — 49% positive, 46% negative. Democrats of both genders view him negatively, as do independents, although with women still slightly more negative than men.
Overall, that leads to a very large gender gap. Among all women, 70% have a negative view of Trump, while among men, 58% do. On the flip side, 23% of women and 36% of men view Trump positively, Gallup found.
If Trump wins the GOP nomination, a key question will be whether he can do anything to change those impressions. Trump’s backers argue that as a salesman and deal maker, he can change his approach enough to win over many of those who dislike him.
Many examples certainly exist of public figures who have succeeded in improving damaged reputations. Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who most likely would face Trump if he wins his party’s nomination, has seen her image cycle up and down, although even at her low point she has never approached Trump’s level of unpopularity.
Usually, however, political candidates' images get worse, not better, during a campaign.
Democratic strategists are counting on that.
In a briefing Friday for reporters, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg presented new data showing that while Trump would do better than Romney did among blue-collar white men, those gains would be exactly offset by his losses among blue-collar white women. The survey showed Trump doing far worse than Romney did among college-educated white men and suburbanites, both constituencies Republicans need to carry to win an election.
More broadly, the poll showed that the Republican brand has been badly damaged, Greenberg said. Democratic constituencies have grown more engaged in the election, and the share of voters who say they plan to vote for a Democrat for Congress has jumped upward, the polling indicated.
All told, Greenberg said, Trump has helped create conditions for an outcome many Republican strategists fear, a Democratic victory that would sweep aside the GOP majority in both the House and the Senate. The country, he said, could be in for an “earthquake election.”
For more on Campaign 2016, follow @DavidLauter