Trump declared an (unpopular) national emergency -- and lost no public support

CNN/ Newswire | 3/19/2019, 10:27 a.m.
CNN's latest poll shows President Donald Trump's approval rating hitting 43% with voters and 42% with all adults. That's not ...
President Donald Trump

Analysis by Harry Enten, CNN

(CNN) -- CNN's latest poll shows President Donald Trump's approval rating hitting 43% with voters and 42% with all adults. That's not great, but it matches other recent polling that illustrates the President's approval rating is clearly up after crevassing during the government shutdown in January.

Another way to look at these numbers: Trump doesn't seem to have lost public support after declaring an unpopular national emergency regarding a border wall and having to veto an attempt by Congress to override said national emergency.

That is, Trump seems, for now, to have made the right public opinion move in declaring the national emergency.

After losing the shutdown fight, the President had three options when it came to a border wall.

  1. Trump could have forced another government shutdown in order to build a more complete border wall with Mexico.

This option was probably the worst one for Trump. The outcome probably would have been the same as the first shutdown. Congress would have refused to fund it. Government workers would not have been paid. Trump's approval rating would have fallen again.

  1. Trump could have deemed building an extension of the border wall with Mexico a lost cause and moved on.

In doing so, Trump would have avoided a shutdown and the center of the electorate would have liked it. I thought this may have been the best political option, as Trump probably wants to get his approval up heading into 2020.

Moving on wasn't without risks, however. In doing so, Trump may have gained nothing with the center and alienated his base, which Trump originally won over with his stances on immigration. Members of his base were upset with him in December when he was originally going to fund the government without money for a wall, leading to the 35-day-long government shutdown. And while you may not remember it, Trump has lost portions of this base before when he failed to deliver, most notably when Congress failed to overturn Obamacare in the summer of 2017.

This left Trump with the third option.

  1. Declaring a national emergency to build the wall.

So far, it seems to be working out for him. At least with voters, his approval rating hasn't been harmed by declaring a national emergency. He proved to his base that he was serious about the issue. Trump didn't have to harm government workers' by taking away their paychecks with a shutdown. And while he most certainly faced a rebuke from Congress, they almost certainly won't override his veto. Trump can go into the campaign and essentially say he did his best to fulfill a promise he made to "build the wall."

Indeed, it's not even clear how unpopular Trump's decision to declare a national emergency actually was. By a 16-point margin (53% to 37%), voters thought Trump shouldn't have vetoed Congress' attempt to override his national emergency. But the same poll showed that by only an 8-point margin (50% to 42%) did voters want Congress to override the President in the first place. That is, they may not have liked what the President did, but they weren't that eager to override him, either.

This dynamic gets at the heart of why the national emergency may have, in retrospect, been the best political move. It doesn't seem that voters in the center of the electorate felt that strongly about it. There is a big difference between something that is unpopular and something that actually affects feelings about the President.

The national emergency seems to have fallen into the former category. It was unpopular, but it wasn't a game changer for most people. That's very different from the shutdown, which did move the President's numbers in a negative fashion.

For a president heading into a presidential election, Trump may have made the right move. He remains popular with his base ahead of a potential primary. He is at least viable in a general election against a Democratic Party that may nominate an unpopular candidate.