Donald Trump has a “favorability” problem. Poll after poll shows Trump doing poorly against Hillary Clinton head-to-head, perhaps reflecting Trump’s historically low levels of favorability (and high levels of unfavorability) for a leading major party candidate.

In response, a meme was created and spread far and wide earlier this month that Trump’s favorability is no worse than Ronald Reagan at a similar point in time in his challege to Jimmy Carter. The conclusion being that if Reagan could overcome that obstacle, so can Trump.

So, the theory goes, those of you Republican national convention delegates who worry about Trump being a general election disaster who could cost Republicans the presidency, House and Senate have nothing to worry about.

A post by Gallup (discussed below) explains why that is not accurate, and why Trump’s favorability is much worse than Reagan’s. But equally important is to examine how it came about that Gallup even is discussing the issue.

It turns out that it started  with a tweet by Ann Coulter, picked up by Gateway Pundit, linked by Drudge, then incorporated into Trump rally speeches. It is, in a sense, a perfect paradigm of the Republican primary so far and how pro-Trump social media has helped Trump.

The Reagan Comparison

Comparing Republican presidential candidates to President Reagan has been a clear theme of the 2016 GOP primary season.

The comparisons to President Reagan need to be made carefully and factually, however, as Trump found out when he attempted to explain away his sudden “evolution” on issues key to conservatives as mirroring those of President Reagan.  This claim inspired a searing response from Michael Reagan; among the many powerful points he made, President Reagan’s son stately clearly and plainly:  “You can’t be a Trump Republican and a Reagan Republican.”

Yet the attempts to connect President Reagan to Trump have continued, and one meme that is flying unhindered around the internet is the response to Trump critics on both the right and the left who note that Trump’s unfavorables are shockingly bad and that he loses to Hillary Clinton in almost every national head-to-head poll:  Trump, they argue, is just as unpopular as Reagan was at this stage of his 1980 campaign.

This claim apparently gained traction when Ann Coulter tweeted:

Coulter’s April 3 tweet linked a 1980 Washington Post article that includes the following:

The other poll was taken by the Los Angeles Times on March 25, the day of the New York primary. It asked Republican and Democratic voters to record favorable and unfavorable impressions of candidates.

Anderson finished in the poll with a 68 percent favorable rating. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was second with a 60 percent favorable rating followed by President Carter with 51 percent and Ronald Reagan with 30 percent.

The Gateway Pundit picked up Coulter’s tweet and posted “DESPITE LATEST MEDIA SMEAR=> Trump’s Favorable Rating Rivals Reagan’s in 1980.”

The Gateway Pundit post was then linked by The Drudge Report as the top link in the right hand column (resulting in over 28,000 Facebook and 11,000 Twitter shares of the GP post):

Then the talking point was incorporated into Trump rally speeches.

During a rally in Rome, N.Y. [on April 11, 2016], Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cast himself as the inheritor of the mantle of Ronald Reagan — at least in the way Reagan came from behind to win the 1980 presidential election.

“I haven’t even started on Hillary, and my numbers are better right now than Ronald Reagan’s numbers were with Jimmy Carter,” Trump said, at about the 17:50 mark. “Ronald Reagan had a 30 (percent) favorability and he was behind Jimmy Carter by so much everybody said, ‘Oh, this is going to be a disaster.’ “

So the sequence was Coulter Tweet >> Gateway Pundit post >> Drudge link >> Trump campaign rally speech.

Gallup Says STOP!

Gallup, however, is challenging this Trump talking point in a recent report. (h/t The Weekly Standard.)

Gallup reports:

A writer with Gateway Pundit recently cited a tweet from prominent political commentator Ann Coulter, which in turn cited an April 15, 1980, Washington Post article written by Bill Peterson, which in turn cited in its final paragraph a March 25, 1980, Los Angeles Times poll showing Reagan’s favorable image at 30%. This final 30% number was used in the first two of these publications to bolster the hypothesis that Trump is merely following in Reagan’s hallowed footsteps….

In fact, the more we look at the data described in the 1980 Washington Post article, the more it appears that this author was referring to a Los Angeles Times exit poll of New York state primary voters. The New York primary was on March 25; there was a Los Angeles Times exit poll conducted then, and the article’s wording refers to Republican and Democratic voters, although the author did not label it as an exit poll per se. [emphasis in original]

We were able to locate the data from the Los Angeles Times New York exit poll from March 25 from the Roper Center archives. This shows Reagan with an overall 35% favorable rating — similar to but not the same as the 30% reported in the Washington Post article. So there remains a mystery as to the origin of the 30% number cited in the Washington Post article. But regardless, these data are from New York state voters, who constitute a substantially different group than the national population with which it is being compared — not a useful comparison.

Gallup did find actual national polls—not one exit poll from one state—that gauged President Reagan’s popularity in 1980.  Gallup also notes that they could find no polling data either in the Gallup archives or in any other polling source that show President Reagan’s favorability numbers underwater as Trump’s are.

There are, in fact, a number of traditional, national poll results from 1980 which did measure Reagan’s image. In general, these data show that Reagan enjoyed mostly positive net favorable reviews throughout 1980.

Gallup’s 10-point “scalometer” method of measuring favorability found 70% of Americans viewing Reagan positively in May and August of 1980. And while the scalometer rating tends to produce higher favorable scores than binary favorable/unfavorable scales, Reagan earned a 60% favorable rating in a January 1980 Gallup/Newsweek poll using the binary wording.

A multitude of polls by other firms whose surveys are archived in the Roper Center polling database confirms Reagan’s generally positive 1980 image.

The Los Angeles Times national polls all show that Reagan’s image was more favorable than unfavorable, including polls in the fall of 1979 and in June, September and October of 1980. There is no Los Angeles Times poll which can be located from 1980 that shows Reagan with a more unfavorable than favorable image, as is the case with Trump today.

Gallup did find one polling organization that showed less glowing favorables for President Reagan throughout 1980, but even that apparent outlier shows President Reagan’s numbers above those that Trump has today.

Only one organization’s polling — Cambridge Reports — consistently showed Reagan’s image with a somewhat less favorable tilt, including a 41% favorable/44% unfavorable rating in January 1980, a 39% favorable/44% unfavorable rating in April and a 35% favorable/49% unfavorable rating in July. But by October, Cambridge Reports gave Reagan a 51% favorable.

From this time distance, it’s not possible to determine why this one organization’s polling was so out of sync with the others conducted roughly contemporaneously. But even the Cambridge numbers for Reagan were not nearly as negative as Trump’s overall image is today, with their “worst” assessment showing a -14 net favorable, compared with Trump’s consistent net favorable ratings of -30 or worse today.

Gallup is not alone. Politifact and 538 have reached the same conclusion, comparing historical data.

At some point someone will do a thorough study of how pro-Trump social media (let’s not even get started about Fox News) has influenced this campaign. The “Reagan favorability” meme will be just a small part of that.

Related Post: Behind closed doors with GOP elites, Trump campaign guru admits to the con.

[LI Author Fuzzy Slippers contributed to and partially drafted this post.]