Donald Trump is apparently more popular at the sentence level than he is as a person or as a President, according to an intriguing new poll released today by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News.
The poll of 1000 adults, polled February 18-22, found that a whopping 86 percent approved of this line from Trump’s inaugural speech, when he asserted that a small group of people in Washington had “reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost.”
“I thought this would test well, but never thought it would reach 86%,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Fred Yang.
The 86 percent who liked the line clearly includes both Democrats and Republicans. President Trump’s disapproval rating remains sky-high—higher than the past five Presidents — but his bloc of support does not seem to be budging.
“The poll found that 44% of Americans approve of Mr. Trump’s job performance, while 48% disapprove, making him the first president of the post-World War II era with a net negative approval rating in his first gauge of public opinion,” the Journal reported.
A key part of that support is formed by the 55% of poll respondents who voted for third-party candidate, didn’t vote at all, or said they supported Trump mostly to oppose Hillary Clinton, the poll found. The pollsters dubbed these “the critical middle.”
Maybe appealing sentences are the answer to both the “critical middle” conundrum and the fact that Trump’s support does not seem to be declining despite the rockiness of his first month in office. Voters may be focusing on individual lines they like, as opposed to a picture they may not.
Consider the woman who hears “you’re wonderful” and not “I’m just not ready to marry you right now.” With 86 percent, that understanding, patient woman might be a symbol for American voters who hear that Washington is only benefiting a small group and nod their heads, thinking how wonderful that someone is finally saying that and thinking of me and my future—and granting their approval to proposals to gut the EPA, NEA, NEH, and other parts of government that have shaped American life and likely benefit them personally.
It may explain the Trump voters whose lifeline is the Affordable Care Act, and still cast a vote for its repeal on November 8th — often voting, effectively, to hasten their own deaths. There was probably a sentence that sounded good wrapped around the repeal proposal.
“Watch the sentences” may need to be the Democratic party’s new mantra. The pollster said it is likely that the same sentence situation will be seen in Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday; there will probably be a line that polls well, despite historic disapproval numbers. And that line may be all Trump supporters hear.
The challenge will be to identify that line and understand its power.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner