During the first weeks of the Trump administration, a recurring theme has been the president’s sinking popularity in the polls.
New presidents typically enter office with high approval ratings, and the numbers will remain high during the president’s honeymoon period.
That hasn’t happened with Donald Trump. He entered office with unusually high disapprovals, and those numbers have continued to increase. The latest Gallup poll, for example, had Trump’s disapproval level at 56 percent of those surveyed while only 38 percent approved.
Trump and his supporters, of course, dismiss all these poll numbers as “fake,” and they may have a point. After all, most of the pollsters last fall said Hillary Clinton would win the presidency — instead, she ended up losing to Trump in the Electoral College despite leading him by nearly 3 million popular votes.
If the polls can’t be trusted, then how do you accurately gauge the popularity of the president? One way is to look at the results of special elections where candidates who support or oppose Trump are on the ballot.
There is just such an election is coming up on April 18 in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where Tom Price recently resigned to become secretary of Health and Human Services.
This election is what they call a “jungle primary,” with all 18 candidates on the same ballot regardless of party affiliation. With this many candidates running, it’s all but assured there will be a runoff election June 20.
The 6th Congressional District, which covers suburban areas in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties, is normally solid Republican. Price was re-elected there in November with just under 62 percent of the vote.
Trump only carried the district by a 48-47 percent margin over Clinton, however. That has Democrats thinking they might have a shot in the special election, which inevitably will be a referendum on Trump.
There was obviously some antipathy to Trump among a segment of the district’s GOP voters Nov. 8. The special election should tell us whether Trump’s performance in office has bolstered or weakened his support among the party’s base.
Eleven Republicans qualified for the special election, and the three most familiar names are Karen Handel, a former secretary of state, and two former state senators, Judson Hill and Dan Moody. These candidates have so far been guarded in their comments about Trump, so it will be interesting to see what they say about the president in their campaign commercials and mailers.
At least two of the GOP candidates are diehard Trump advocates who are competing to see which one can attract more of the president’s supporters. They are Bruce LeVell, who was the head of Trump’s “diversity coalition,” and businessman Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek city councilman.
Five Democrats are on the ballot, but the two with the most political experience are Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide, and Ron Slotin, who served two terms in the state Senate during the 1990s before running unsuccessfully for Congress. All of these Democrats will be making an issue of the controversies Trump has stirred up since his inauguration.
How do you read the results of this special election? You won’t be able to do an exact calculation because of the presence of two independent candidates on the ballot, but I think you’ll come pretty close.
Add up the percentages of the votes that go to the 11 Republican candidates. If they total more than 48 percent, which was the portion that went to Trump in November, then Trump probably has not damaged his standing among the district’s GOP voters.
Check to see if either of the Trump loyalists, LeVell or Gray, make it into the runoff. If both of them are knocked out in the first round of voting, that’s an indication that Trump’s support may be slipping.
Add up the percentages of the five Democratic candidates. If they total more than the 47 percent that went to Clinton — and if a Democrat makes it into the June 20 runoff — that would be an indication that Trump’s support is going downhill.
Polls, as we’ve seen, don’t always give us an accurate reading of the political landscape. Actual elections like the one coming up on April 18 can tell us a lot.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.