Polarized, or Not?

By Jim Ellis

March 1, 2017 — Much is being made about President Trump’s early job approval ratings. Almost across the board, they are low, and particularly so for a new national chief executive, which has naturally attracted media attention.

In their late February report about political polarization, the Gallup polling organization, which began testing presidential job approval back in the Truman Administration and has regularly continued the practice ever since, argues that polarization among the self-identified Republicans and Democrats is a major obstacle for President Trump to overcome. They further make the point that this is not a new phenomenon, as partisan approval polling detected similar numbers for presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The Gallup analysis, on and around the Feb. 20 time frame, found President Trump’s job approval rating to be 42 percent. When they looked at the two previous presidents, also hitting 42 percent approval rating at certain points in their own presidencies, Gallup found the level of partisan support and opposition among Democrats and Republicans for the president of their own party was virtually identical.

While at 42 percent overall approval, both Presidents Trump and Bush had 83 percent approval ratings among Republicans. When President Obama reached that same overall approval percentage, he had almost 89 percent support among Democrats. Both opposition party respondents registered only single digit approval for the president from the other party.

While self-identified party members seem to be more partisan – and more knowledgeable about where the two parties stand, which could be largely attributable to the 24-hour news cycle – there are less of them; hence, the more important swings are found among the non-affiliated voters. According to the Pew Research Center in a report released soon before the 2016 election, just 33 percent of the voting population identifies as Democrats, 29 percent Republican, with the remainder as Independent or non-affiliated (38 percent).

Interestingly, while approval polling may be wholly consistent during the last two presidential administrations and the beginning of this third one, the actual voting statistics don’t necessarily indicate that the polarization trend is becoming entrenched. In fact, when reviewing the strongest Democratic performance in the last three elections, that of President Obama in 2008, and the strongest Republican, President Trump in 2016, we actually see a decreasing trend in polarized margins.

In 2008, President Obama carried 28 states plus the District of Columbia. He garnered 52.9 percent of the national popular vote with an average 50.5 percent within the 50 state vote counts.

Eight years later, President Trump carried 30 states, 46.0 percent of the national popular vote, with a state vote count average of 48.0 percent.

But, it is the margins within the states that are interesting. If we agree that a state is ardently polarized when the winning candidate in either 2008 or 2016 broke 60 percent of the individual state vote while the other candidate did not top 40 percent, then we see that the earlier electorate was actually the more polarized of the two.

Eight years ago, President Obama recorded polarized victories in seven states, where he exceeded 60 percent of the vote while President Trump in 2016 took less than 40 percent. They are: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.

In November, we found only four polarized states for the winning candidate, this time where President Trump attracted more than 60 percent support and President Obama fell under 40 percent back when he won his first national election in 2008. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Therefore, while approval polling suggests polarization is hardening over the most recent political years, the raw vote statistics are somewhat inconsistent with such a premise and may actually indicate a lessening of such a trend. But, this slight reduction is also more associated with a rise in the number of Independents, rather than any real softening among self-identified partisans.

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