What do Americans Think of President Trump’s Handling of Puerto Rico’s Slow Recovery? Will These Opinions Affect His Approval Ratings?

Six days into the 2018 hurricane season, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters for a briefing on the agency’s readiness to respond to future hurricanes. While Trump’s remarks referenced Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts, he did not talk about the numbers of Puerto Rican who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria.

The President tweeted his thoughts about his FEMA visit:

Thank you to everyone at HQ for today’s briefing on preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. Disaster response and recovery is best achieved when it’s federally supported, state managed, and locally executed – this is the successful model we will continue to build.

Almost nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, how do Americans rate Trump’s response to the island’s humanitarian crisis? The Economist/YouGov Poll of June 3-5, 2018 does provide some clues. But before we look at the figures, it is important to keep in mind two things.

  1. President Trump’s approval ratings have improved dramatically in the last weeks. The RealClearPolitics average estimates that Trump’s enjoys the approval of 42% of Americans. The FiveThirtyEight model, which adjusts the polling data according to different criteria, finds that his approval is at 41%.  To put these numbers in perspective, Trump’s approval rating when he visited Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria stood around 38% in both the RealClearPolitics average and the FiveThirtyEight model.

2. On October 18, 2017, President Trump and Governor Rosselló met in the White House to discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria. After their meeting, they met with the White House press corp and took some questions. As I noted in an earlier post, Trump was asked to rate his administration’s response to the situation in the island, using a 10 point scale. Unsurprisingly, the President graded the federal government’s performance with a 10 out of 10.

Back in October 2017, a majority of Americans did not approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis. Have opinions changed?

chart (58)

The graph shows that Americans today are more critical of his efforts. But it is important to highlight that the number of Americans who disapprove of his response is roughly the same. In other words, if we were to combine the number of people who selected “Disapprove Somewhat” and “Disapprove Strongly”, we would see that 44% of respondents disapproved of Trump’s response in October 2017 and in June 2018.  What is surprising, given that Puerto Rico’s death toll controversy has been widely covered by U.S. media outlets, is the number of Americans who cannot rate the president’s performance, which increased by 8% in the newest survey.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked respondents the following question: “How much do you think Donald Trump cares about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria?” This question is basically asking respondents to look past policy issues and to judge his moral character and his empathy towards others.

 

chart (61)

The graph clearly shows that respondents question President Trump’s moral sensibilities While the survey does not capture why respondents have become more critical of Trump, one possible reason is his unwillingness to publicly talk about Puerto Rico’s crisis, even when events in the island receive lots of media attention. This makes Trump seem uninterested in the issue, raising questions about his moral character.

Looking at the crosstabs in both surveys, we can see that some of Trump’s toughest critics are those respondents who are either registered Republicans or who said they voted for him in the 2016 presidential election. For example, 71% of those respondents who voted for Trump and completed the survey in October 2017 “strongly approved” of “the way Donald Trump [handled] the response to Hurricane Maria.” Although this figure decreases to 45% in the most current poll, it is worth noting that the number of Trump supporters who disapproved of  his handling of the situation only increased from 5% to 11%. Survey-takers who identify as Republicans also became less supportive of President Trump’s performance. In October, 58% of Republicans “approved strongly” of his response, but it decreased to 39% in the most recent survey.

These findings are also applicable to the other question. In October 2017,  three-fourths of respondents who voted for Trump believed that President Trump cared “a lot” about the  “needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria.” By June, this number declined to 56%. We seem similar drops among registered Republicans.

The only surprising result is the number of Hispanics who believe that he cares “a lot” about Puerto Ricans’ “needs and problems”, which jumped from 15% to 18%. While this is a small bump, which may be statistically insignificant, it is the only category where his ratings did not decline.

 

Will Trump pay a political price for his handling of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria? It seems unlikely. While the Economist/YouGov Poll did include questions on Puerto Rico, major polls conducted by Quinnipiac University,  FoxNews, the NBC and the WSJ did not do so. This suggests that pollsters believe that this issue is not of national significance.

This reality raises an important question: if President George W. Bush’s mishandling of the response to New Orleans affected his legacy, why is President Trump’s standing with the American public not affected by Puerto Rico’s slow recovery? One possible answer is that Americans rate Trump’s other controversies as more important.

But, I think that the problem is more complex. Most Americans think of Puerto Rico as a foreign nation, rather than a U.S. territory. And for those Americans who do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they will not think of the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico when they judge President Trump’s performance. Yesterday’s post showed that 58% of those who completed the most recent Economist/YouGov Poll either do not think that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens or are not sure of their citizenship status.

 

 

 

 

 

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