To build consensus as president, Trump should look to polls

Perhaps the greatest surprise in the 2016 presidential election is that it was won on the issues, not on the basis of character flaws.

ADVERTISEMENTOur post-election survey, conducted by Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and the National Research Group, shows that while both candidates battled each other with an unprecedented level of hostility that sent their personal images spiraling down, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE had a slate of easily identifiable issues around which he built his support and his coalition of voters.  

He starts out as president-elect with just 43 percent favorable and 49 percent unfavorable, meaning that he has a considerable distance to go to overcome opposition and build majority support to lead a nation deeply divided by generation, gender, race, ideology and party. 

And yet solid majorities support a combination of tax cuts and infrastructure spending to create new jobs and modernize the country.

Nearly 80 percent agree we need a major infrastructure overhaul. This basic deal of lower taxes and corporate repatriation in exchange for an infrastructure fund has been talked about for years and eluded Obama. But the stars are now aligning for Trump to cut this deal and get public support for it.

Other no brainers with over 60 percent support include even tougher ethics laws, expanding child care and forcing NATO members to pay their fair share.

The first two will take Democratic votes to pass and will be a test of whether Trump can triangulate effectively with Democrats to get things done or will find an opposition party that would rather sit tight and hope to succeed in the midterms.

It is hard to see how Trump can go for ethics reform without addressing his own conflict of interest inherent in his business holdings.

On the controversial issue of immigration, Trump has broad support for some of his key proposals.

His most popular idea by far is deporting undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. Nine in ten support this, suggesting that Democrats standing up for sanctuary cities are skating on incredibly thin ice politically. They are unlikely to have majority support even in their own cities.

And a solid majority of Americans do want to cut off immigration now from areas with links to terrorism — though the public roundly rejects any religious test for immigration under any circumstances. Sympathy for the Syrian refugees is also quite limited given the threat of embedded terrorists. 

Many of Trump’s most controversial proposals have only limited support. Building a wall and making Mexico pay for it is a highly polarizing idea, with nearly equal proportions supporting and opposing the wall.

He would be better off backing away from this signature idea. Only 34 percent expect him to build the wall in any event and overall expectations of what he can and will do are quite low. 

Repealing and replacing Obamacare got 46 percent approval, suggesting Trump is right to try to keep some of the law’s most popular elements such as accepting people with pre-existing conditions and allowing children to stay on parents’ plans up until age 26. If he can repeal and replace it while keeping those features intact, he is likely to have a winner but many experts question whether that is possible without a mandate. 

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Although majorities opposed the Iran deal from the beginning, Trump is on shaky ground if he just pulls out of the deal today after we sent them billions of dollars.  He is on firmer ground seeking to renegotiate NAFTA as 48 percent, just shy of a majority, support that course. 

President Obama generally governed by being popular personally even as his policies were unpopular.

President Clinton in contrast generally won over voters on his policies and results, but his personal qualities trailed his performance.

As Trump begins his presidency, the most popular political figures are Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaThe Hill’s Morning Report – Treasury, Fed urge more spending, lending to ease COVID-19 wreckage Budowsky: Michelle Obama or Tammy Duckworth for VP Michelle Obama urges class of 2020 to couple protesting with mobilizing, voting MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE, and he is far down the list even below his vice President. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE has, however, sunk below Trump at 40 favorable and 54 percent unfavorable.

Presidents rarely are able to follow a straight path to getting things done   — typically there are stumbles and lessons learned from the experience of being thrust into the office and overreaching in the first two years.

President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE’s first years were such a disaster that few believed after the 1994 congressional elections, which the Republicans swept, that Clinton could win a second term.

As a neophyte to politics, Trump is likely to have similar problems and will have to learn an entirely new skill of negotiating with Congress, which, he is likely to find, is far more vexing than negotiating with business rivals.  

Exerting leadership with Congress, and for the nation as a whole, is particularly difficult when an executive’s approval rating is well under 50 percent. 

But the poll offers a roadmap for his retooling his agenda and putting the economy first as a way to build up momentum and broaden his support. It suggests that if he tries to put through all his proposals, he will divide the country and generate significant mid-term blowback.

But if he can modify his most extreme proposals and yet work to deport criminal undocumented aliens, get fairer trade, expand child care credits, and combine it with tax cuts and infrastructure, he could gather steam. 

Stephen Ansolabehere is Professor of Government at Harvard University. Mark Penn is a managing partner and president of The Stagwell Group.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.