Why Trump’s popularity is ticking up

Just in time for the midterm elections, President Trump’s approval rating is drifting upward.

He’s still under 50%, but getting close to break-even. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Trump’s approval rating rose three percentage points, to 47%. His disapproval rating dropped three points, to 49%. It’s the best showing Trump has had in this particular poll during his presidency.

Other polls aren’t quite as upbeat for Trump. His average approval rating in a FiveThirtyEight composite is 43%, and a recent CBS News poll has him as low as 39%. But in most polls he’s trending upward during October, which could be an important trend if it lasts until Election Day on Nov. 6.

Three factors seem to be helping Trump achieve these modest gains:

The economy is remarkably solid. The unemployment rate is a subterranean 3.7%, and there are a record 7.1 million jobs open in the country. The portion of Americans saying the economy is the nation’s most important problem is at a scant 12%. During President Obama’s first two years—which represented the end of a nasty recession—more than 60% said the economy was the top national problem. A strong job market is getting even stronger, right into the election.

Trump gets some credit on trade. In the Wall Street Journal poll, support for the Republican approach to trade jumped in October, most likely because of the new agreement with Canada and Mexico to update the North American Free Trade Agreement. The new pact, known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement isn’t that different from NAFTA, and many people with opinions on trade probably won’t notice any changes. But Trump seems to have sold himself as a trade dealmaker fairly effectively, even though his tariff dispute with China is intensifying, with no resolution in sight.

He knows how to exploit immigration. It’s no accident Trump is fulminating about a caravan of migrants heading north, through Mexico—and blaming Democrats for its existence—as a key election approaches. The portion of Americans citing immigration as a top economic problem has jumped under Trump, even though actual immigration has declined. About half of Trump’s supporters agree with his anti-immigration views, and while he may not convert many new voters at this point, his real aim is probably firing up anti-immigration supporters and persuading them to vote.

34 PHOTOS
Migrants travel through Central America to the U.S.
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Migrants travel through Central America to the U.S.
Thousands of Hondurans in U.S.-bound migrant caravan head into Mexico. (Reuters)
Rafts cross the Suchiate River to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
A Honduran migrant, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., climbs down from the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants walk along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Central American migrants making their way to the U.S. in a large caravan wave a Mexican flag as they arrive to Tapachula, Mexico, after a truck driver gave them a free ride, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. Despite Mexican efforts to stop them at the Guatemala-Mexico border, about 5,000 Central American migrants resumed their advance toward the U.S. border Sunday in southern Mexico. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Central American migrants walk along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Central American migrants walk along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Central American migrants hitchhike along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Central American migrants walk along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
A man holds his luggage a top his head amidst a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America as they walk towards Tapachula from Ciudad Hidalgo while en route to the United States, in Frontera Hidalgo, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Central American migrants walk along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Central American migrants walk along the highway near the border with Guatemala, as they continue their journey trying to reach the U.S., in Tapachula, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
A caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America walk towards Tapachula from Ciudad Hidalgo while en route to the United States, in Frontera Hidalgo, Mexico October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Honduran migrants children, Ian Enamorado, 9, Josen Enamorado, 6 and Jasabel Quintanilla, 3, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., wait with their parents to apply for asylum in Mexico at a checkpoint in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Children of Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., wait with their parents to apply for asylum in Mexico at a checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., cross the Suchiate River on a raft to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., cross the Suchiate River to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., cross the Suchiate River to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., cross the Suchiate River to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., use a provisional ladder to climb down from the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala, in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., cross the Suchiate River on a raft to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Central American Migrant, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., holds a child after crossing the Suchiate River on a raft to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Central American migrant, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., holds a girl in his arms as he walks to Mexico after crossing the Suchiate river to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., sit on a raft after going down from a bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Central American migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., react on a raft after climbing down from a bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., cross the Suchiate River on a raft to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., wait to cross the Suchiate River to avoid the border checkpoint in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Honduran migrant, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., waits to open the gate on the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., wait to open the gate on the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., wait to open the gate on the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., rest at the checkpoint between Guatemala and Mexico in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, October 19, 2018.REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., rest on the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., are pictured after crossing into Mexico, in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico October 19, 2018REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
A Honduran migrant, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., climbs down from the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala to avoid the border checkpoint in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
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Trump’s approval rating is still lower than it was for most modern presidents at the same point in their first term, according to FiveThirtyEight data going back to Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. And there’s still time for unforeseen developments to harm Trump’s image and his party’s midterm prospects. The Journal poll, for instance, was taken before the grisly murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi became an international scandal, with Trump responding in a nonchalant way even some of his fellow Republicans consider weak. The stock market has been skittish lately, and could slide into Election Day, unnerving some voters with exposure to equities.

Every approval point matters, because Trump’s Republicans seem poised to lose control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming election. Democrats need to win 23 seats or more to take control of the House. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics counts 212 House seats likely to be under Democrat control, with 22 tossup races. Since it takes 218 seats to control the House, Dems only need to win about one-third of the tossups to take the House for the first time since 2011.

The president’s party typically loses Congressional seats during midterm elections. President Obama’s Democrats, for example, lost 13 House seats in 2014 and 63 in 2010. George W. Bush’s Republicans lost 30 House seats in 2006.

One exception to the rule was Bill Clinton, whose Democrats picked up 5 House seats in the 1998 midterms. Trump might find that comforting, since the economy in 1998 was humming smoothly, much as it is now. And Clinton’s approval rating on the eve of the midterms was almost as low as Trump’s is now. Clinton, however, was about to be impeached by the House at this point back in 1998. Don’t tell Trump.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.comClick here to get Rick’s stories by email

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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