In national polls, President Trump’s approval rating hardly budged in 2018, but through the eyes of the American Communities Project, two different stories unfolded — notable gains with the people who make up President Trump’s base and an unchanged electorate elsewhere.
Gallup poll data from 2018, analyzed through the ACP community types, shows that the most urban communities in the country barely moved in their opinion of Trump. But in rural communities — the places at the heart of Trump’s base — the president saw significant upticks in his job approval.
Overall, the president’s job performance numbers from Gallup went from 39% approval in the first quarter of 2018 to 40% approval in the fourth quarter. And that kind of negligible movement was also apparent in the ACP’s most densely populated areas. The Big Cities, Urban Suburbs, Middle Suburbs, and Exurbs all posted increases of zero to two percentage points in Trump’s approval from the first to fourth quarter — movement within the margin of error.
But the improvement in job approval was far greater — increases of five to seven points — in the more rural community types that the ACP studies: Evangelical Hubs, Military Posts, Rural Middle America, and Working Class Country.
You can see a map of all the ACP types below:
Impact of the Economic Numbers
The difference in Trump’s approval numbers may be revealing as the country moves past the midterm elections and turns its attention to the 2020 presidential race.
First, the data show that even after another year of solid economic growth, urban communities, which have benefited more from the good times, have not changed their opinion of the president. Trump’s approval rating is not above 50% in any of those places, and in the communities that lean Democratic — Big Cities and Urban Suburbs — his approval is well below 40%.
That suggests that even if the strong economic numbers continue, the president may have a hard time using them as an electoral tailwind in the communities where most voters live. In other words, these numbers may be something of a Trump ceiling in these communities and a downturn certainly wouldn’t help him.
A Big Gamble
But throughout 2018 President Trump did not focus heavily on the economy in his appeal to voters. His stronger messaging, particularly through the midterm election campaign, was based on cultural issues, such as immigration.
The data here suggest these issues may be rallying his more deeply committed rural base. His fourth quarter 2018 approval numbers were above 60% in the Evangelical Hubs and Working Class Country communities.
That raises a question: Is Trump’s deep-red rural base enough for him as he looks to govern for the next two years and seek reelection? The data suggest that relying on it alone would be a big gamble. Nearly 200 million people, 61% of the U.S. population, live in the urban communities where Trump’s numbers seem stalled below 50%.
And looking further back, to when Trump was first inaugurated in January 2017, the slippage is even more evident — and potentially more problematic for the president.
The president never had a true honeymoon period; even his first monthly number with Gallup only has him at 44% approval. But since that first poll, his numbers are down almost across the board, particularly in important communities that are reliably Republican.
In January 2017, 55% of the people who lived in the Exurbs approved of Trump’s performance. In Rural Middle America, 63% approved. At the end of 2018, those figures were 48% and 53%, respectively — big drops that put him well below the percentages he received from those communities in 2016.
The Exurb and Rural Middle America communities are crucial for any GOP presidential candidate. They have long leaned heavily Republican and together they hold almost 20% of the votes cast in 2016. They also make up large portions of battleground states that may decide the 2020 race — Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Unless the president can win some of those voters back, his 2018 rural uptick likely won’t help him much in 2019 and probably won’t be enough to save him in 2020.