On a very basic level, one big reason why President Trump lost reelection is that he wasn’t very popular. As of Nov. 3, his job approval rating was just 44.6 percent, and his disapproval rating was 52.6 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval average. That -8.1-point2 net approval rating was the third-lowest of any recent3 president on the day they stood for election to a second term. (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were the only two other presidents to go into Election Day with a lower net approval rating, or higher disapproval rating, than Trump’s.) Notably, all three lost.
Unpopular presidents usually lose elections
Recent presidents’ average approval and disapproval ratings on Election Day of the year they ran for another term
Lyndon B. Johnson*
Dwight D. Eisenhower
George W. Bush
Harry S. Truman*
George H.W. Bush
Part of this boils down to the well-documented relationship between a president’s approval rating and his ability to win another election. Hugely popular presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan cruised to a second term, while divisive but still net-popular ones like George W. Bush and Barack Obama won in squeakers. In fact, the only recent president to lose his bid for a second term with a positive net approval rating was Gerald Ford in 1976. (That said, he had a fairly weak approval rating — just 43.6 percent, lower than Trump’s on Election Day in 2020. A relatively high share of Americans had no opinion of him, which may have made it easier for his opponent, Carter, to win them over.) That means the only president with a negative net approval rating to win a second term was Harry S. Truman in 1948 — an election still upheld as one of the most shocking upsets of all time.
That said, a president’s approval rating is hardly the last word. Elections, after all, are a choice between (at least) two candidates. But in the case of 2020, it looks like President-elect Biden was indeed more popular than Trump, at least according to Biden’s favorability ratings. (Favorability ratings and approval ratings aren’t quite the same thing, but they are pretty close.) And according to an average of favorability polls conducted during the week before Election Day, Biden had a 51.0 percent favorability rating and a 43.9 percent unfavorability rating, for a net favorability rating of +7.0 points. Meanwhile, Trump’s average net favorability rating in those same polls4 (-10.8 points, or 43.1 percent favorable vs. 53.9 percent unfavorable) was slightly worse than his net approval rating.
Americans viewed Biden pretty favorably
Polls of Joe Biden’s favorability and unfavorability ratings conducted up to a week before Election Day
McLaughlin & Associates
Oct. 31-Nov. 2
Oct. 29-Nov. 1
Oct. 29-Nov. 1
Oct. 28-Nov. 1
NBC News/The Wall Street Journal
Since elections essentially boil down to a popularity contest, the fact that Biden was better-liked than Trump on Election Day probably helped him win where Hillary Clinton (who was as unpopular as Trump in 2016) lost. Biden may have had an easier time winning over voters with a low opinion of Trump simply because fewer of them had a low opinion of him — a problem that doomed Clinton.
What might happen to Trump’s and Biden’s popularity from here? Historically, new presidents have enjoyed a honeymoon phase where they become better-liked shortly after winning the election and taking office. And according to a couple new polls, Biden’s may already have begun. According to a Gallup poll of American adults out this week, Biden’s favorable rating is now 55 percent — 6 points higher than it was in late October and the highest it has been in that survey since before he announced he was running for president. And last week’s Morning Consult/Politico poll gave Biden a 57 percent favorable rating and a 41 percent unfavorable rating among registered voters — a vast improvement over his +6-point net favorability in their last pre-election survey together, in late October.
As for Trump, presidents often become more popular once they leave office and people start viewing their tenures through rose-colored glasses. It’s too soon to say whether that’s going to happen with Trump; his approval rating has hovered steadily in the 44-45 percent range since Nov. 3. That said, 44-45 percent is among the highest approval rating he has achieved over the last four years — so a handful of people who didn’t approve of his job performance for most of his presidency do approve of it now. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues, especially if he runs again for president in 2024.
Other polling bites
With the promise of a coronavirus vaccine finally on the horizon, a new SurveyMonkey/Fortune poll finds that 40 percent of U.S. adults want to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. However, another 39 percent said they want to wait a while before getting it, and 19 percent said they never want to get the vaccine. Republicans (30 percent) and Black Americans (25 percent) were especially likely say they would turn down the vaccine.
In Ipsos’s latest coronavirus survey, conducted the two days before Thanksgiving, 62 percent of Americans said they were canceling their typical holiday travel plans, and 66 percent said they were doing more holiday shopping digitally this year.
We at FiveThirtyEight were glued to the election results as they came in about a month ago, and it turns out we weren’t alone. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 36 percent of Americans say they followed the results of the election “almost constantly,” while another 34 percent “checked in fairly often.” Twenty-two percent said they “checked in occasionally,” while only 7 percent “tuned out entirely.”
A Nov. 17-19 survey by Harris X/The Hill found that 60 percent of registered voters support Biden canceling up to $50,000 of student debt per person — something that prominent Senate Democrats are reportedly pressuring him to do via executive order.
A new poll from Research Co. has found that Americans disagree, 58 percent to 33 percent, with a proposal to lower the federal voting age to 16. However, they agree, 64 percent to 27 percent, with letting legal permanent residents (i.e., green-card holders) vote.
While 2020 is a year that few people will remember fondly, Americans are at least optimistic that 2021 will be better. According to a recent YouGov survey, 48 percent of adults think 2021 will be a better year for them personally than 2020 has been; 28 percent think it will be about the same, and only 9 percent think it will be worse.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,5 43.6 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.8 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.2 points). At this time last week, 44.1 percent approved and 52.6 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -8.5 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 44.6 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.1 points.