According to the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, Donald Trump will take the oath of office with the lowest approval rating of any president in 40 years—and little better than half the approval rating that President Obama enjoyed when he took office eight years ago. In his familiar fashion, Trump responded to reports about the poll by suggesting that the numbers might have been “rigged.”
Yet paradoxically, Trump’s low approval ratings represent less political danger for congressional Republicans than Obama’s much higher numbers posed for Democrats. That’s true for the same reason that polling correctly showed Trump losing the 2016 popular vote, but did not block his path to the presidency. Trump remains largely popular with white voters, and the states and districts that will hold competitive midterm elections in 2018 are more white than the country as a whole.
According to the new poll, while Trump is badly underwater among all voters, 52 percent of white voters say they approve of his handling of the transition. Twenty-seven percent strongly approve.
In 2008, Obama won the vast majority of congressional districts, even in states that had been drawn in 2001 to elect a maximum number of Republicans. Two years into his term, on Election Day 2010, the national exit poll gave Obama an approval rating of 45 percent, higher than Trump has seen since he won the presidency. But Republicans dominated with white voters, winning 62 percent of them — up from 55 percent in 2008. Obamas’s high and loyal approval ratings with nonwhite voters simply did not pack the same punch, as most were clustered in safe seats, a situation that has grown even more so since the 2011 gerrymander.
As of 2016, the House was won in districts that were whiter than the country at large. In 2018, Republicans see vulnerable Democrats in states that are whiter and more rural—and that broke big for Trump. If the president-elect’s approval rating is stuck at 40 percent, it is still likely above 50 percent in the places where Republicans need to win.