President Donald Trump’s lackluster job approval numbers have become a hallmark of his presidency. Many are looking at them to better understand the Democrats big night in Virginia and New Jersey on November 7. But depending on where you live the numbers can look very different.
Some communities that supported Trump in 2016 still stand strongly behind him, while others have turned sour on the president’s job performance, according to Gallup tracking poll data from 2017 analyzed with the American Community Project’s 15 county types.
The numbers show how attitudes toward the president have evolved since his inauguration in the counties that made up “Trump Country” in 2016. The counties can be loosely sorted into three groups: Standing by Their Man, Waverers and Buyer’s Remorse.
Standing By Their Man:
There was a group of voters who didn’t just vote for Trump because he won the GOP nomination, they saw him as a messenger who was bringing a different approach to Washington. The places most strongly behind the president were the counties known as Evangelical Hubs and rural, blue-collar Working Class Country. He won more than 70% of the vote in both those types.
(You can see where those counties are based on this map, with Evangelical Hubs in light purple and Working Class Country in dark blue.)
In September Trump’s approval was above 60% in both county types and since January he’s never fallen below 50% in either one.
These are the communities keeping Trump’s approval numbers from cratering; and considering their stability it’s probably unlikely they are going to fall away anytime soon. Voters in them wanted someone to disrupt Washington and they are getting what they asked for.
Not all rural Republicans are the same. Some lean conservative, but also show a more pragmatic streak and do not view politics through a particularly religious prism. Those voters, based in Rural Middle America in the ACP, started off with high hopes for the president, but as time has gone by their enthusiasm has waned.
(You can see these communities in royal blue on the ACP map.)
These counties gave Trump 61% of their presidential vote last November and started at roughly the same number for presidential approval in January, but since June Trump’s approval number here has been 52% or lower.
Rural Middle America communities bear particularly close watching in the months ahead. If Trump’s approval number goes underwater in Rural Middle America, it’s a sign that he is struggling with not just his supporters, but with a group of rural counties that is generally a core GOP constituency.
Trump’s struggle in urban centers in most polls is not a surprise, but there are two groups of counties in metro areas that are generally good to Republicans and Trump is struggling in them: the Exurbs and the Middle Suburbs.
(They are displayed in yellow and light orange on the ACP map.)
In some ways the Exurbs and Middle Suburbs represent opposite ends of the 2016 Trump coalition, at least in semi-urban areas.
The Exurbs are wealthy, well-educated bastions of the GOP establishment sitting in counties where rural areas transition to become more rural. Trump captured about 56% of the vote in these communities in 2016. The Middle Suburbs are not poor, but they tend to sit closer to cities and feature lower college education rates and more of a blue-collar feel. Trump won 54% of the vote in them.
For both these county types, 2016 represented a break from past voting patterns. In the Exurbs, voters were less certain than usual. Trump won but performed slightly worse (3 percentage points) than Mitt Romney did in 2012. In the Middle Suburbs, where the vote is usually close in presidential races, voters took a leap. Trump scored a big victory, winning those counties by 13 points.
The numbers here, in both county types, show voters may be having second thoughts on their choice.
Unless these communities turn around, it will be hard for Trump to improve his poll numbers in any significant way. The president’s base has always had a distinctly rural cast, but these communities were his door into metropolitan areas – where there are more voters. He needs to do well in them, or at least better than this.
And ultimately that’s true for Trump’s fate beyond just poll numbers. The Exurbs and especially the Middle Suburbs were instrumental to the president’s close wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and those states won him the White House.
It’s interesting to note that, as analysts sort through the results from the November 7 gubernatorial race in Virginia, there are no Middle Suburbs in the state to examine. The numbers out of Virginia do suggest, however, the Republican turnout and enthusiasm was down in the Exurban counties such as Prince William, Fauquier and Chesterfield.
As 2016 fades into memory and 2018 and 2020 appear on the horizon the attitudes in those kinds of counties will matter will matter more and more.