No, Charlottesville Did Not Boost Trump

In the week following the violence between white supremacists and the antifa in Charlottesville, including the killing of a young woman by an alt-rightist, Pres. Trump’s job approval numbers ticked up slightly.  This led some to think that Trump’s comments, including the notion that there were some “fine people” on both sides, redounded to his political benefit.

We now have an ABC News/Washington Post poll showing the damage done.  Only 28% of adults (very close to the ~25% who will approve of whatever Trump does) approve his response to Charlottesville, perhaps a bit worse than the prior CBS News poll that asked specifically about this topic (disapproval also ticked upward in the HuffPost/YouGov surveys asking about Trump’s response).

Although Trump’s overall job approval remains about the same as the July numbers from ABC/WaPo, they are a record low for the modern presidency.  Below that unimpressive topline, there is internal erosion.  Trump’s strong approval is down 5 points since April, 11 points among Republicans and strong conservatives.

The polls are a data point for my Failer Faster Thesis, i.e., that the general public digests information more slowly than political junkies (and this has become more pronounced in the social media age).  But the meaning of the internal erosion is still open to debate.

I have been operating on the general theory that the incidents of Trump’s unpresidential behavior are slowly turning people off, moving strong supporters to weak ones, and weak supporters to disapprovers.  But the nature of how people are being turned off is open to debate.

I have been thinking that the mechanism is people either deciding that they cannot support a man of low character any further, or that the impression of disarray is convincing people Trump will not succeed.

Allahpundit, ever the Pollyanna, wonders whether the disapproval of Trump’s Charlottesville response may be driven by people who think Trump was too soft on the Left.  An even more pessimistic theory is that some Trump supporters disapprove of his Charlottesville comments because they were too hard on the alt-right and white supremacists.  These latter possibilities are the non-linear alternative to my theory.  And all of these theories may be partially correct.

In this context, the poll’s numbers regarding views of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the alt-right are of some note.  The published toplines indicate 10% of adults support the alt-right and 9% find neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable.

Although neither ABC nor the WaPo published cross-tabs, the latter reports that alt-right supporters include similar shares of Democrats and Republicans.  ABC reports that 13% of Republicans and strong conservatives find neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable, as do 17% of strong Trump supporters (22% of adults in this poll).   And these are the people who admit to the opinion to a pollster; it’s the type of question open to being skewed by social desirability bias.  Per ABC, for example, another 13% of strong Trump supporters supposedly have “no opinion” on whether neo-Nazism is acceptable.

Looking at the data from the other direction, the WaPo reports that “roughly 1 in 6 Americans either support the alt-right or say it is acceptable to hold white supremacist or neo-Nazi views,” of which 54% approve of Trump’s performance.

Depending on how one wants to slice those stats, somewhere between two and eight points of Trump’s support comes from people who find the alt-right and worse to be acceptable.  There are conservatives, even smart conservatives, who look at the small attendance for alt-right/neo-Nazi rallies and think this type of person is a fringe of a fringe.  It’s not a miniscule number, especially not in the context of a President who squeaked out an Electoral College victory.

In this context, Trump’s comments seemingly distinguishing the alt-right from the KKK and neo-Nazis shows a certain instinct regarding his base, if utterly lacking in moral clarity.  To the degree that disapproval of Trump may be rising because he’s not craven enough, it also demonstrates an aspect of the instability of Trump’s political coalition.  Attempted solicitude toward slimy bigots may not even hold onto all the slimy bigots, let alone decent people repelled by the effort.

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