Polling Spotlight: Low expectations for Trump could be helping him

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a Make America Great Again rally at the Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2018. Picture taken August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis - RC112CAB1E90

President Trump just had a very very bad week. Two of his closest associates were convicted of serious crimes. One of them has implicated the president directly. A long-time supporter who has used his control of the National Enquirer to bury negative stories about him has received immunity to tell what he knows. There is more bad news to come. And yet, his supporters are sticking with him.

The question is why?

One potential explanation is that Mr. Trump is a fighter. That he often fights dirty doesn’t detract from the fact that his supporters love how he stands up to one and all. The second answer is that Trump and his allies have repeated the mantra of “fake news” so often and so vilified the press corps that his supporters heavily discount negative stories about him. A third answer is that on the policy front, he has delivered much of what he promised during the campaign: for religious conservatives, congenial judicial nominations and a defense of religious liberty as they understand it; for economic conservatives, tax cuts and deregulation; for populist conservatives, initiatives on trade, immigration, and foreign affairs.

Thanks to a just-released survey from the Pew Research Center, we have a fourth possible explanation: when it comes to his conduct as president, few Americans expected much from him in the first place. During the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Trump lowered expectations for his performance in office so much that he is seen as mostly having measured up to them.

Recall that Mr. Trump received 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016. But surveyed just before the election, only 40 percent of Americans thought that he would improve the way government works; 39 percent expected him to run an open and transparent administration; 36 percent believed that he would improve America’s standing in the world. Only 33 percent of Americans expected that he would set a high moral standard for the presidency, while fully 56 percent anticipated that he would improperly use his office to enrich himself or his friends and family.

In short, along every dimension Pew assessed, substantial numbers of Americans voted for Mr. Trump despite believing that he wouldn’t measure up to normal standards of presidential performance. And along all dimensions save one, voters’ assessments of Mr. Trump’s performance after more than a year and a half in office corresponded almost precisely to their expectations on the eve of the election.

The one exception: setting a high moral standard for the presidency. Only 27 percent of Americans think Mr. Trump has done so, compared to the already modest 33 percent who expected him to in November of 2016. We have come a long way since FDR declared that the presidency is “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” Mr. Trump seems to have added an amendment to the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those with low expectations, for they shall not be disappointed.”