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Why Trump’s popularity is ticking up

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Just in time for the midterm elections, President Trump’s approval rating is drifting upward.

He’s still under 50%, but getting close to break-even. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Trump’s approval rating rose three percentage points, to 47%. His disapproval rating dropped three points, to 49%. It’s the best showing Trump has had in this particular poll during his presidency.

Other polls aren’t quite as upbeat for Trump. His average approval rating in a FiveThirtyEight composite is 43%, and a recent CBS News poll has him as low as 39%. But in most polls he’s trending upward during October, which could be an important trend if it lasts until Election Day on Nov. 6.

Three factors seem to be helping Trump achieve these modest gains:

The economy is remarkably solid. The unemployment rate is a subterranean 3.7%, and there are a record 7.1 million jobs open in the country. The portion of Americans saying the economy is the nation’s most important problem is at a scant 12%. During President Obama’s first two years—which represented the end of a nasty recession—more than 60% said the economy was the top national problem. A strong job market is getting even stronger, right into the election.

Trump gets some credit on trade. In the Wall Street Journal poll, support for the Republican approach to trade jumped in October, most likely because of the new agreement with Canada and Mexico to update the North American Free Trade Agreement. The new pact, known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement isn’t that different from NAFTA, and many people with opinions on trade probably won’t notice any changes. But Trump seems to have sold himself as a trade dealmaker fairly effectively, even though his tariff dispute with China is intensifying, with no resolution in sight.

He knows how to exploit immigration. It’s no accident Trump is fulminating about a caravan of migrants heading north, through Mexico—and blaming Democrats for its existence—as a key election approaches. The portion of Americans citing immigration as a top economic problem has jumped under Trump, even though actual immigration has declined. About half of Trump’s supporters agree with his anti-immigration views, and while he may not convert many new voters at this point, his real aim is probably firing up anti-immigration supporters and persuading them to vote.

Trump’s approval rating is still lower than it was for most modern presidents at the same point in their first term, according to FiveThirtyEight data going back to Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. And there’s still time for unforeseen developments to harm Trump’s image and his party’s midterm prospects. The Journal poll, for instance, was taken before the grisly murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi became an international scandal, with Trump responding in a nonchalant way even some of his fellow Republicans consider weak. The stock market has been skittish lately, and could slide into Election Day, unnerving some voters with exposure to equities.

Every approval point matters, because Trump’s Republicans seem poised to lose control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming election. Democrats need to win 23 seats or more to take control of the House. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics counts 212 House seats likely to be under Democrat control, with 22 tossup races. Since it takes 218 seats to control the House, Dems only need to win about one-third of the tossups to take the House for the first time since 2011.

The president’s party typically loses Congressional seats during midterm elections. President Obama’s Democrats, for example, lost 13 House seats in 2014 and 63 in 2010. George W. Bush’s Republicans lost 30 House seats in 2006.

One exception to the rule was Bill Clinton, whose Democrats picked up 5 House seats in the 1998 midterms. Trump might find that comforting, since the economy in 1998 was humming smoothly, much as it is now. And Clinton’s approval rating on the eve of the midterms was almost as low as Trump’s is now. Clinton, however, was about to be impeached by the House at this point back in 1998. Don’t tell Trump.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman