These Are the Weirdest Things That Affected Presidents’ Approval Ratings (and How Donald Trump Compares)
Americans can be pretty critical of the presidents. After all, successfully campaigning for the presidency and showing up for work at the Oval Office opens the commander in chief up to criticism about his personality, his looks, and his sense of morality — and that’s without even mentioning his politics and policies. Many strange factors affect presidents’ approval ratings, including Donald Trump’s.
Read on to learn about the most surprising things that have caused presidents’ approval ratings to go up or down. And see how Donald Trump’s ratings compare (page 12).
1. Harry S. Truman was as unpopular as George W. Bush thanks to a tax scandal
Slate reports that according to his approval ratings, Harry S. Truman became as unpopular as George W. Bush later did. Several factors played in to Truman’s record-low approval ratings. They included the Korean War, a weak economy, and “tax fixing.” But the latter is by far one of the weirdest simply because of the scale of the scandal.
Throughout 1951, dozens of Bureau of Internal Revenue officials had to resign (or were forced out) on allegations of corruption. Truman responded very slowly to the controversy. And in February 1952, only 22% of respondents to a Gallup poll thought the Truman administration could clean up the corruption.
Next: This president became a pop culture icon.
2. John F. Kennedy’s approval ratings may have been helped by the popularity of Kennedy imitators
The Pew Research Center notes John F. Kennedy enjoyed enormous popularity as president. Having survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans grew confident in America’s power and the country’s ability to work with other nations. They became optimistic about the economy and satisfied with their income. And they credited the president.
Additionally, Kennedy enjoyed 70% approval ratings in early 1963, with many Americans confident in his handling of foreign policy and domestic affairs. Plus, Pew reports, “unlike modern presidents, Kennedy was a cultural phenomenon. In 1963, Gallup estimated that 85 million Americans had seen or heard a Kennedy imitator.” That has to go down in history as one of the weirdest factors that might have affected his approval ratings.
Next: This president’s approval ratings actually benefited from JFK’s assassination.
3. JFK’s assassination helped Lyndon B. Johnson’s approval ratings start out strong
Lyndon B. Johnson ascended to the presidency following JFK’s assassination, and public sympathy seems to have helped his early approval ratings. His numbers remained healthy for a time — at least until America really got deep into the Vietnam War.
As the Miller Center reports, Johnson’s approval ratings dropped from 70% in mid-1965 to below 40% by 1967. With his approval ratings went his influence over Congress. “I can’t get out, I can’t finish it with what I have got. So what the hell do I do?” the president reportedly said to his wife.
Next: This president enjoyed good approval ratings despite a huge scandal.
4. Richard Nixon got a boost from a Vietnam peace settlement despite Watergate
You’d think when news of a scandal like Watergate breaks, that would spell immediate doom for presidential approval ratings. But as Gallup reports, that’s not exactly what happened. “The impact of Watergate on Richard Nixon was not immediate,” the group reports, noting that the actual break-in occurred in 1972. But Nixon won re-election in November of that year. And he had robust approval ratings of 62% immediately thereafter.
By January 1973, the trial of the first Watergate defendants began to have an impact. But in spite of the scandal, Nixon’s approval ratings still went up to 67% when he announced a Vietnam peace settlement. His approval ratings would go on to drop, hitting 44% by May and 31% by August. But it still sounds amazing that the peace deal could impact the ratings at all in the face of the historic scandal.
Next: Two horrible events had little effect on this president’s numbers.
5. 2 assassination attempts did nothing for Gerald Ford’s approval ratings
Just as strange as the factors that do affect presidents’ approval ratings are the things that don’t. Most Americans would sympathize with someone who has survived an assassination attempt — but not in Gerald Ford’s case.
As The Huffington Post explains, Ford found himself the target of two assassination attempts in September 1975. “It is amazing that these two attempts on his life did next to nothing to raise President Ford’s approval ratings,” the publication reports. In fact, his ratings “jumped at most 2 percentage points in the aftermath, and immediately subsided again.”
Next: This president fired a lot of people, which impacted his numbers.
6. Jimmy Carter fired 5 Cabinet members — and collapsed during a 10K race
Many presidents have fired a few people from their administrations. But Jimmy Carter set records and made headlines by asking for the resignations of his secretaries of Energy; Treasury; Health, Education, and Welfare; and Transportation. Carter made the moving saying he wanted a new start, but it backfired spectacularly.
As the Miller Center reports, Carter soon earned the lowest approval ratings of any president in three decades. And just a day after those approval ratings went public, Carter collapsed in a 10K race, leading the press to depict the event as representative of the strength of his presidency.
Next: This president wasn’t actually as popular as most Americans remember.
7. Americans liked Ronald Reagan better after he left office
Gallup reports that Ronald Reagan received only average approval ratings during his time in the Oval Office. In fact, his approval ratings were hurt by the bad economy and the fallout from the Iran-Contra affair. But as Gallup notes, “Americans have more recently upgraded their retrospective approval of the job he did as president, and now routinely think of Reagan as one of the nation’s more outstanding presidents.”
In fact, Reagan has appeared on Gallup’s Most Admired Man list more than 30 times — more than any other person except evangelist Billy Graham.
Next: This president got in trouble when he broke a campaign promise.
8. George H.W. Bush got in trouble for a weak economy (and a broken promise)
Gallup reports that real-world events — even those out of the president’s control — “often have a dramatic impact on presidential job approval ratings, underscoring the transient nature of the public’s evaluation of the presidents.” What Gallup characterizes as the most famous drop in approval ratings came during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, “primarily as a result of public disenchantment with the way things were going economically in the country.”
Bush’s approval ratings fell from a record high of 89% to just 29% — a decline probably further precipitated when he broke a campaign promise that he wouldn’t enact any new taxes.
Next: This president enjoyed popularity despite a huge scandal.
9. Bill Clinton’s approval ratings remained high despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal
A controversy like the one that embroiled Bill Clinton’s presidency after his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky would spell doom for a president in the #MeToo era. But as NBC reported at the time, Clinton’s approval ratings remained high despite the media frenzy over the scandal.
In fact, Clinton’s numbers were the highest for any second-term president in history — stronger even than Reagan’s. In fact, Newsweek noted that Clinton still had higher approval ratings than President Donald Trump, perhaps because Clinton had just one scandal to contend with while Trump has weathered many.
Next: This president got into huge trouble thanks to an ill-timed photo op.
10. Photos taken on Air Force One caused George W. Bush’s approval ratings to plummet
George W. Bush achieved record-high approval ratings in the months immediately following 9/11. But those ratings took a huge hit after the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. News reports that when the hurricane hit, Bush was taking a weeks-long vacation at his Texas ranch. His aides chose not to inform him about the disaster for two days.
When Bush finally heard about Katrina, he hurried back to Washington, flying over the wreckage and allowing news photographers to take photos of him as he looked out the window. “Many Americans saw the photo, which was widely disseminated, as evidence that Bush was too distant from the misery below,” U.S. News notes. That major mistake made him look detached and uncaring. So his approval ratings took a big hit.
Next: This major factor influenced Barack Obama’s ratings.
11. Barack Obama’s approval ratings were influenced by race
Quartz reports that Barack Obama left office with approval ratings 10 percentage points lower than when he took office — a fairly typical trajectory for modern presidents. But as Quartz notes, what was unique about his approval ratings was “the greatest divergence in Obama’s popularity was along racial/ethnic lines.”
The publication adds, “While Obama’s approval plummeted among whites during his presidency, it increased slightly among nonwhites overall, due to a six point jump among blacks and a relatively small dip with Hispanics.”
Next: This weird factor seems to affect Donald Trump’s approval ratings.
12. Donald Trump’s approval ratings seem affected by his attitude toward his enemies
Five Thirty Eight is tracking Donald Trump’s approval ratings throughout his presidency. There’s plenty to be said about them. But Vox noted one of the weirdest trends in the numbers: “When Trump deals with Democrats, his polls rise. When he picks dumb fights, they fall.”
When Trump proves himself open to compromise — and above feuding with Democrats — Americans respond positively. But when he makes obviously partisan moves, stokes culture war battles, or starts feuds, his approval ratings fall.
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