Much has been written about President Donald Trump’s historically low popularity ratings as he leaves office. But the tarnish on the Trump brand goes beyond the President.Melania Trump leaves the White House with the worst popularity rating for any first lady at the end of her term in polling history.
The latest CNN/SSRS poll had Trump’s favorable rating at 42% to a 47% unfavorable rating. The 47% is the highest unfavorable rating we ever recorded for Trump. It’s also amazingly high from a historical perspective.Traditionally, first ladies are nearly uniformly admired. The position is unelected and normally uncontroversial. It’s hard to be unpopular.
Take a look at the final CNN and Gallup polls that asked about first ladies popularity since Pat Nixon. The average first lady’s final popularity rating before Trump was 71% with an unpopularity rating of 21%. That means the average net popularity rating for these first ladies was +50 points.
Now, the ratings for Nixon, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter were taken before their husband’s final month in office and the questions asking about popularity were worded differently than Trump’s question. Even if we take these first ladies out of the equation, we get a very similar 70% favorable and 23% unfavorable average final rating since Nancy Reagan in 1989. In fact, the only first lady to leave office with a net popularity rating below +40 points was Hillary Clinton. Her net favorability rating of +13 points (52% favorable and 39% unfavorable) in a January 2001 CNN/Time/Yankelovich Partners poll still easily beat Trump’s final rating.
Remember, Clinton, unlike Trump, ran for her US Senate seat during her husband’s final year in the White House and was sworn in weeks before he departed the White House. She was also far more politically active in the White House, helping lead its push for health care reform. In other words, unlike most first ladies, Clinton was going to be seen in a partisan light.Trump has not been anywhere near as involved in the day-to-day management of the White House. She’s usually not that visible, at least to most Americans.
Indeed, it’s not entirely clear how much Trump’s low ratings have to do with her in particular. Yes, she’s had some moments that blew up on social media, and she did break tradition (with her husband) in not welcoming the Biden family into the White House.But Trump’s low ratings precede her time in office. She’s frequently featured relatively low net popularity ratings, dating back to when her husband was running for president in 2016. (She was not very well known then at all.)It does seem that merely being associated with her husband has had a negative impact on her popularity.
Tempting as it might be to think that a husband’s unpopularity automatically means a first lady is unpopular too, this has not been the case historically. When Richard Nixon was already well into the throes of the Watergate scandal in August 1973, 83% of Americans rated Pat Nixon a +1 or above on a favorability scale that ran from -5 to +5. Just 13% rated her a -1 or worse. When Jimmy Carter’s approval rating was at a mere 32% in August 1979, Rosalynn Carter’s approval rating stood at 59% to a disapproval rating of 19%.
The Carter comparison to Trump is especially interesting because Donald Trump’s current approval rating is quite similar to where Jimmy Carter’s was at that point in his presidency.
Originally, CNN Analyst Harry Enten thought the current first lady’s low popularity could be because of increasing polarization in our politics. Laura Bush, however, proved that even in the modern era, a first lady can be vastly more popular than her husband. Her final favorable rating in a January 2009 CNN/ORC poll was 67% to a 20% unfavorable rating.
George W. Bush’s favorable rating was 35% in the same poll. In fact, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama (69% favorable rating) both finished with popularity ratings about average for departing first ladies.Of course, no first lady this century has ever left office with the 85% favorable rating of Barbara Bush in 1993. His guess is that incoming first lady Jill Biden won’t either. Her favorable rating was 58% to a 29% unfavorable rating. But just like her husband, Biden starts off a lot more popular than her predecessor.