Trump’s Nostalgia Bump – The New York Times

President Trump left office wildly unpopular. But in the past few years, some voters’ opinions about him have improved. Support for how Trump handled key issues as president — including the economy, and law and order — has risen by about six percentage points since 2020, according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. A plurality of voters, 42 percent, now say the Trump years were “mostly good” for the country. Only a quarter say the same of President Biden’s tenure.

Biden says he finds the nostalgia “amazing,” and at a time when Trump is a defendant in four criminal cases, it may seem surprising. But former presidents often enjoy more positive assessments from voters in retrospect. The difference this year is that, for the first time in decades, a former president is running to reclaim his old office.

Today, I’ll explain why voter nostalgia seems to be helping Trump, and how that might change.

Decades ago, the polling firm Gallup started asking Americans what they thought about past presidents. The results revealed a pattern: Almost everyone Gallup asked about, from John F. Kennedy to Trump, enjoyed higher approval ratings after leaving office than he did while holding it, as this chart by my colleague Ashley Wu shows.

One explanation is political. As presidents leave office, partisan attacks recede. Some presidents, like Jimmy Carter, become well known for philanthropy or other good works. “You kind of move, as an ex-president, from being a political figure to someone who is above the fray,” Jeff Jones, a Gallup senior editor, told me.

Another explanation is historical. As years pass, popular culture and collective memory come to shape Americans’ views of presidents — especially for those too young to remember the actual events. History textbooks, for instance, tend to focus more “on the good things they did than the bad things, the historical contributions that they made as president rather than scandals or poor decisions or poor policies,” Jones said.

There are psychological explanations, too. Human memory is fallible. People often experience their current problems more acutely than they recall their past ones or think better of experiences in retrospect, which psychologists call recency bias. That can lead to a perpetual yearning for the supposed good old days.

In Trump’s case, the result seems to be that voters are focused more on the inflation, record border crossings and overseas wars of the Biden years than on the administrative chaos, pandemic and insurrection of the Trump years. Voters “know about what they don’t like about Biden, and they have forgotten what they don’t like about Trump,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican consultant, told The Times.

Those more positive assessments may be one reason Trump has led Biden in most polls this year. In a Times/Siena survey from February, more than twice as many voters said that Trump’s policies had helped them personally as said that Biden’s had.

Trump’s post-presidency bump may also suggest that voters have forgotten, or forgiven, the turmoil of his final weeks in office. Not all of Trump’s predecessors recovered in this way. Richard Nixon’s approval ratings plummeted before he resigned during Watergate, and they never bounced back. But in Gallup’s polling, voters’ assessment of Trump’s presidency has rebounded to where it was in October 2020, before Trump tried to overturn his re-election defeat and before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Approval ratings can change. In particular, they can decline when a campaign begins. Hillary Clinton’s favorability spiked when she was first lady and secretary of state but fell when she ran for president.

To flatten Trump’s nostalgia bump, the Biden campaign plans to run millions of dollars in ads reminding voters what they disliked about Trump’s presidency. One recent spot interspersed video of empty store shelves from 2020 with a clip of Trump wondering if Americans should inject disinfectant to treat Covid. Biden’s approach may already be working; the new Times/Siena poll shows that he has cut Trump’s national lead to just one point.

Democrats have reasons to hope that higher approval ratings alone won’t win Trump a second term, even as Biden’s remain low. In Gallup’s poll, most Americans still disapproved of Trump and how he governed, even in hindsight. And as November nears, voters may focus more on what Trump plans to do if he regains the White House than on what he did last time.

But in an election that’s likely to be very close, even a small afterglow could matter.

  • Trump’s criminal case in Manhattan — about a hush-money payment — goes to trial today.

  • The Jan. 6 riots are central to Trump’s campaign. He opens his rallies with a recording of defendants singing the national anthem from their jail cells.

Later this week, the artist Jeffrey Gibson’s paintings and sculptures will fill the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. His works will feature geometric patterns and political references to Indigenous struggles and American history.

Gibson — who is Choctaw and Cherokee — is the first Native American artist to exhibit at the pavilion solo. Read more about the exhibition.

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