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Trump Third Year Sets New Standard for Party Polarization

Trump Third Year Sets New Standard for Party Polarization

Story Highlights

  • 82-point party gap: 89% of Republicans, 7% of Democrats approve
  • Trump's third-year, 12th quarter job approval averages are his best to date
  • They still rank among the worst for post-World War II presidents

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Eighty-two percentage points separated Republicans' (89%) and Democrats' (7%) average job approval ratings of President Donald Trump during his third year in office. This is the largest degree of political polarization in any presidential year measured by Gallup, surpassing the 79-point party gap in Trump's second year in office.

Trump's first year also ranks among the 10 most polarized years, along with the last five years of Barack Obama's presidency and several of George W. Bush's years in office.

Largest Gaps in Democratic vs. Republican Approval of the President, Gallup Polls, 1945-2020
  Year in office (Dates) % Approve, Republicans % Approve, Democrats Gap (pct. pts.)
Trump 3 (Jan '19-Jan '20) 89 7 82
Trump 2 (Jan '18-Jan '19) 87 8 79
Obama 8 (Jan '16-Jan '17) 12 89 77
Obama 4 (Jan '12-Jan '13) 10 86 76
G.W. Bush 4 (Jan '04-Jan '05) 91 15 76
Trump 1 (Jan '17-Jan '18) 83 8 75
Obama 7 (Jan '15-Jan '16) 10 83 73
G.W. Bush 5 (Jan '05-Jan '06) 86 14 72
Obama 5 (Jan '13-Jan '14) 11 82 71
Obama 6 (Jan '14-Jan '15) 9 79 70
G.W. Bush 6 (Jan '06-Jan '07) 79 9 70

The fact that the 10 most polarized years have all occurred in the past 16 years -- affecting both Democratic and Republican presidents -- underscores how politically polarized the nation has become. There have always been partisan gaps in ratings of president, just not to the degree seen over the past two decades.

What separates recent years from the more distant past is how low approval ratings have been from supporters of the party in opposition to the president:

  • Trump's approval ratings among Democrats have averaged in the single digits in each of his three years in office.

  • Obama averaged 13% approval among Republicans as president, making him the first chief executive to average under 20% approval among the opposition.

  • George W. Bush (23% approval among Democrats) and Bill Clinton (27% approval among Republicans) were the first presidents below 30% among identifiers of the opposition party.

  • Four post-World War II presidents -- Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush -- averaged better than 40% approval among the opposition party.

Extremely low job ratings from the opposition are the main -- but not the only -- reason Trump's approval ratings are so polarized. Trump's 86% approval rating among Republicans is on pace to be the second highest a president has received from his own party. Only Eisenhower's 88% rating among Republicans was higher, although most presidents did have job approval averages above 80% from their fellow partisans.

And while Trump's approval ratings among Republicans to date would register as one of the highest in history, his ratings among independents are on pace be the lowest from that group for any president by a significant margin. To date, Trump has averaged 35% job approval among independents, including 38% in his third year in office. All other post-World War II presidents registered approval above 40% among independents during their terms, with Jimmy Carter's 42% the lowest.

Trump Averages 42% Job Approval Overall in Year Three

Overall, Trump averaged 42% job approval during his third year in office, an improvement over his 38% first-year and 40% second-year averages.

Trump's third-year average is not far behind Obama's 44.5% or Reagan's 44.9% averages at the same point in their presidencies. However, it still ranks among the lowest year three averages for any president elected to their first term since World War II, surpassing only Jimmy Carter's 37.4%.

Elected Presidents' Third-Year Job Approval Averages
  Dates of third year Job approval average (%) Number of polls
Eisenhower Jan 20, 1955-Jan 19, 1956 72.1 15
Kennedy Jan 20, 1963-Nov 22, 1963 61.8 12
Nixon Jan 20, 1971-Jan 19, 1972 49.6 13
Carter Jan 20, 1979-Jan 19, 1980 37.4 24
Reagan Jan 20, 1983-Jan 19, 1984 44.9 22
G.H.W. Bush Jan 20, 1991-Jan 19, 1992 69.5 40
Clinton Jan 20, 1995-Jan 19, 1996 47.5 23
G.W. Bush Jan 20, 2003-Jan 19, 2004 59.6 41
Obama Jan 20, 2011-Jan 19, 2012 44.5 351
Trump Jan 20, 2019-Jan 19, 2020 42.0 21

From a broader historical perspective, Trump's 42% year three average ranks 62nd out of 76 presidential years in Gallup's records, or in the bottom fifth.

Trump's Most Recent Quarter His Best to Date

From Oct. 20, 2019, through Jan. 19, 2020, -- the 12th quarter of Trump's presidency -- he averaged 43.3% job approval, his highest quarterly average to date, slightly better than the 42.7% he averaged during his 10th quarter. Trump's approval ratings have been constrained to a fairly narrow range during his presidency, between the high 30s and low 40s.

Line graph. Donald Trump’s quarterly job approval ratings have averaged between 37% and 43%.

Trump's most recent approval ratings -- between 43% and 45% in November through January -- are some of the best of his presidency. Still, they look weak in historical context.

Trump's 12th quarter average ties Obama's as the lowest such average Gallup has measured for a president elected to his first term in office. By this point in their presidencies, Reagan and Clinton, who had subpar ratings for most of their first terms, were near 50% approval. And Carter, who had the worst third year of any president, saw his ratings improve during his 12th quarter as the nation rallied around him after the Iran hostage crisis and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Elected Presidents' 12th Quarter Job Approval Averages
  Dates of 12th quarter Average % approval Number of polls
Eisenhower Oct 20, 1955-Jan 19, 1956 76.3 3
Kennedy Oct 20, 1963-Nov 22, 1963 58.0 1
Nixon Oct 20, 1971-Jan 19, 1972 49.3 3
Carter Oct 20, 1979-Jan 19, 1980 46.2 5
Reagan Oct 20, 1983-Jan 19, 1984 52.0 4
G.H.W. Bush Oct 20, 1991-Jan 19, 1992 53.2 9
Clinton Oct 20, 1995-Jan 19, 1996 48.8 5
G.W. Bush Oct 20, 2003-Jan 19, 2004 55.4 10
Obama Oct 20, 2011-Jan 19, 2012 43.3 84
Trump Oct 20, 2019-Jan 19, 2020 43.3 4


With Trump's job approval ratings approaching 90% among his fellow Republicans but mired in single digits among Democrats, no president has been viewed more divergently among the party groups. To a large degree Trump, like Obama and George W. Bush, is governing in an era when partisans are unlikely to disapprove of a president of their own party or approve of a president of the other party. But Trump's harsh rhetoric against Democrats may also contribute to the nation's increasing political polarization.

Party polarization is a major reason for Trump's lackluster overall job approval ratings, and one that will make his winning a second term a challenge, particularly because more U.S. adults align themselves with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. Historically, presidents have had to reach near 50% approval in order to win a second term, and Trump's highest rating to date in any poll is 46%.

Because he is unlikely to increase his support among Democrats and cannot improve much more among Republicans, his odds of getting to the 50% mark and winning a second term hinge on his ability to persuade independents to support him. That is something he has not had great success with thus far, as barely more than one-third of independents have approved of the job he is doing at any point in his presidency.

How independents view the Senate impeachment trial, how they respond to the recent trade deals and changes in the U.S. economy, and how they evaluate Trump's handling of international crises such as the recent matter with Iran will be crucial to determining their support for Trump and whether he wins a second term in office.

Explore President Trump's approval ratings and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.

Learn more about public opinion metrics that matter for the 2020 presidential election at Gallup's 2020 Presidential Election Center.

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