UMass Faculty Member Michael Ash Develops New Presidential Approval Visualization

Michael Ash
Michael Ash

Michael Ash, economics and public policy, has developed a visualization that offers a novel perspective on President Donald Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings leading up to the November election.

Ash’s dashboard compares approval and disapproval ratings for Trump and 12 previous incumbent presidents as Election Day approaches. While other analyses, such as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, compare ratings of Trump and otherincumbents starting from the first day of each president’s assumption of office,Ash presents the comparison as a countdown to Election Day.

Ash believes that tracking the data from the start of each president’s serviceis not useful for those who took office outside the normal election cycle, such as Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson. For example, he says that comparing Trump’s and Johnson’s approval ratings at three years and eight months into their presidencies is not a useful comparison, as that marker places Trump at the tail end of his first term while it misses Johnson’s landslide re-election in 1964, oneyear after he assumed office following the Kennedy assassination.

“Three years and eight months into Johnson’s presidency is well into the late ’60s, when the war in Vietnam was a widely acknowledged catastrophe, and Johnson had become very unpopular,” Ash said. Johnson ultimately chose not to seek his party’s nomination in 1968.

A more useful comparison, he says, would be to compare Johnson’s and Trump’s ratings four months before Election Day in, respectively, 1964 and 2020. In the summer of 1964, Johnson enjoyed approval ratings of more than 70%, and he went on to aneasy re-election. The FiveThirtyEight model “misses where Johnson was on the eve of the election,” Ash said.

Ash’s dashboard shows that Trump’s approval rating in the countdown to Election Day is markedly lower than that of incumbents who went on to win re-election, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower. Trump has similar approval ratings to two who went on to lose, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. At this point Trump’s approval is on par with that of Harry Truman, whose vigorous final campaign months led to a narrow victory, but lags substantially behind that of Ford, who was denied re-election. A similar pattern holds when comparing Trump’s disapproval ratings to the other presidents.

“[Trump is] doing worse than almost everyone who won re-election, but he’s doing as well or better than most of the single-term presidents at this point in the election cycle,” Ash said.

Ash’s project uses Gallup approval polling garnered from the University of Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. The dashboard and its associated code are posted on GitHub, an open-source sharing platform, and he invites other researchers to weigh in with their thoughts or suggested improvements.