New national polls show voters are more upbeat about President Donald Trump’s performance and more pessimistic about the Democrats’ chances of taking back the House. Or not.
An April 8-11 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Trump’s job approval rating at 40 percent, while 56 percent disapproved of his performance.
An April 8-11 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed almost identical numbers, with the president’s job approval at 39 percent and his disapproval at 57 percent.
But when you look below the topline numbers or start comparing survey results to earlier polls, things start to get a little more, well, complicated.
The Post-ABC survey found Trump’s job approval had improved from its January poll (when the president’s job approval stood at 36 percent), while the NBC/Journal survey showed Trump’s approval had worsened since its previous poll in March, when it stood at 43 percent.
This no doubt caused some head-scratching by news anchors and talking heads who have relatively little experience with or understanding of survey research — and who insist on focusing on every bump in the road rather than on the road itself.
Hold the horses
In fact, it’s best not to try to explain every data point.
“Margin of error” exists for a reason, and treating every survey number as if it is a perfect reflection of reality is an invitation to an emotional breakdown.
Most results from reputable national surveys show the president’s job approval in the 38 percent to 42 percent range. Try to live with that until there is a clear breakout in one direction or the other.
It’s best to approach survey results with a dose of common sense. That may make those of us seeking complete objectivity a bit uncomfortable, but it is still necessary given the increasing difficulty in getting accurate results at a time when many voters refuse to respond to public opinion surveys.
I find it difficult to believe the president’s job approval has been moving around much — or that it has improved significantly over the past few months.
Few Trump enthusiasts are defecting from him, and his opponents are as “locked in” as can be.
Yes, good news for the White House can move the president’s numbers up a couple of points for a few days, and bad news can cost him a few points for a matter of days or weeks. But public opinion always seems to return to the same 38 percent to 42 percent job approval range we have seen for many months.
A horse race?
Of course, if you want to be confused, there is always the “generic ballot.”
The NBC/Journal poll from April showed Democrats with a 7-point advantage, 47 percent to 40 percent, while the Post-ABC survey put the Democrats’ advantage at 10 points among voting-age adults but at only 4 points among registered voters.
But when you adopt a longer time frame, things suddenly get more complicated.
The Post-ABC surveys of adults from April, January and November showed Democrats with a low double-digit lead in the generic ballot. But the Democratic advantage in the generic ballot among registered voters plunged from 12 points in January to just 4 points in the latest survey.
While I’m certain you can come up with some elaborate explanation for the shift among registered voters, I wouldn’t waste the time.
It seems very unlikely that there has been a fundamental shift in sentiment among registered voters. It’s much likelier that the Post-ABC result is a statistical hiccup that doesn’t mean much.
That’s why I was surprised how The Washington Post played the results, suggesting the findings were a “signal to party leaders and strategists that they could be premature in anticipating a huge wave of victories in November.”
Maybe that 4 percent number is a signal. And maybe it isn’t.
It could simply be that the January survey was misleading or the April survey understated the Democratic advantage. Or a little of both.
If I were you, I’d wait for the next round of generic ballot tests from the major pollsters before getting too excited about the most recent Post-ABC generic ballot result.
More horsing around
Of course, if you really want to drive yourself crazy, you can consider Quinnipiac University’s generic ballot polling.
An April 6-9 Quinnipiac poll showed Democrats with a 3-point advantage, 46 percent to 43 percent. Another Quinnipiac poll conducted three weeks earlier gave them a 6-point edge.
Two weeks before that, Democrats had a 10-point advantage, and two weeks before that, Quinnipiac found them with a 15-point generic ballot lead.
That means that between mid-February and early April, a period of about seven weeks, the Democrats’ advantage in the congressional generic ballot shrunk from 15 points to 3 points.
Feel free to believe that if you want, but it strikes me as unreasonable given that the overall news flow hasn’t been favorable for Trump, and recent special elections suggest growing Democratic enthusiasm and strengths.
I have spent years watching polls, and I value them immensely. My repeated warnings about reading too much into the responses to any single question doesn’t change that.
I’d merely like to see everyone show a bit more skepticism and caution, rather than simply regurgitating the numbers and accepting them at face value.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 19, 2018.
The press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was groundbreaking, if difficult to believe.
The chairman of the DCCC said his committee “will not fund any Democratic candidate who initiates attacks against their Republican opponents of an ‘intimate’ personal nature.”
In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman made the same pledge and wrote that the agreement negotiated by the two committee heads “has the potential to truly change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better. We each agreed that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office.”
If you think I just made up those quotes or the bipartisan agreement was the product of my imagination, you are very wrong. That agreement was forged almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1998, by Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who chaired the DCCC, and Georgia Republican John Linder, his counterpart at the NRCC.
But while Frost’s press release was limited to announcing the agreement, Linder used his letter to complain that President Bill Clinton’s allies were trying to discredit his critics: “As we have seen all too often, those whose views differ from the White House often become targets of vicious smears from ‘unnamed sources.’ In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes on the White House’s ‘history of attacking its accusers.’ Kurtz writes, ‘James Carville, the president’s friend, openly declared ‘war’ on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of ‘groping her.’”
Linder was particularly upset about rumors being circulated that decades earlier, Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extramarital affair.
He complained: “The personal smear campaign being waged against my friend Henry Hyde is a shameful attempt by a hateful few to besmirch one of the most distinguished men to ever honor our nation with his service. These attacks are nothing more than a slanderous bid to intimidate the man charged with overseeing possible impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.”
About a week earlier, on Sept. 18, The Washington Post had noted that a “leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: ‘Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They’ve made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this.’”
(That’s the same diGenova who has defended President Donald Trump and almost joined the president’s legal defense team.)
While Trump’s affairs — and denials — are getting plenty of attention, most political campaigns have moved beyond issues of personal, “private” conduct.
Indeed, the focus on the current president’s behavior is less about his “private” behavior than it is about whether he lied, obstructed justice or benefited from the help of a foreign government.
Yes, Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy resigned his seat in the House after it was revealed that he had an affair and urged his mistress to get an abortion, and former judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was sunk after revelations about his past personal behavior.
But Moore won a Republican primary even as rumors swirled about bad behavior years earlier, and GOP Reps. Blake Farenthold of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee have survived personal scandals.
Personal scandals aren’t what they once were in American politics, though the recent attention to inappropriate sexual behavior has to some extent redefined what behavior is disqualifying for an officeholder or political hopeful and what is not.
I wouldn’t expect to see today’s campaign committees again swearing off future attacks, and it should be clear to all that the 1998 Frost-Linder agreement did not, as the Georgia Republican hoped, “change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better.”
Challengers and underdogs must still use multiple lines of attack to have any chance of winning, and White House spokesmen and leakers still try to discredit their opponents and silence their critics.
If anything, the nastiness has increased, even as attacks on a candidate’s private life — “when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office” — seem to have become less important to voters.
The ideological division between the two parties has grown, and new platforms have made it easier for bizarre accusations based on baseless conspiracy theories to enter the political debate and to circulate very publicly — rather than through whispering campaigns of many decades ago.
The result is that the current political environment — and certainly the current White House — has taken us further away from civility, thoughtfulness, and the tenor and tone that Frost and Linder said they hoped to achieve. And that is a great pity.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2018.
The gun debate has shifted dramatically. Suddenly, it looks as if the issue will benefit Democrats in November, not Republicans.
The reason for the shift doesn’t rest primarily on the intelligence and commitment of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, although many of them have been articulate and persuasive.
Nor does the shift naturally follow from the decisions of large American corporations to stop selling assault weapons, or to end partnerships with the National Rifle Association, although those steps are a significant development.
And the shift in gun control politics isn’t happening because, after mass shootings in places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino and Newtown, the attack in Parkland finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
No, the reason why the gun control issue was a big advantage for the GOP for decades but now favors the Democrats can be traced to the shift in the electoral coalitions of the two parties.
A red shift
For years, the gun control debate benefited Republicans because their party was able to attract gun rights voters who were — or had been — reliably Democratic. Those voters initially aligned with the Democrats because of the party’s commitment to organized labor and its working-class agenda, and they constituted an important part of the party’s base vote in places like northeastern and western Pennsylvania, Minnesota’s Iron Range, upstate New York and working-class areas of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
But as “cultural issues” — including abortion, school prayer, civil rights, gun control and ultimately gay rights and same-sex marriage — became increasingly salient from the late 1960s into the 1990s, a new fracture in American politics emerged.
Many cultural conservatives found themselves uncomfortable in the Democratic Party, and they started flirting with, and then shifting to, the GOP. Opponents of gun control — or advocates of gun owner rights, if you prefer — were among the most vocal party switchers.
By attracting former Democrats and swing voters who cared primarily about gun owner rights, the GOP was both adding to its numbers and subtracting supporters from the Democrats.
The gun issued changed the political arithmetic so completely in the Republicans’ favor that Democrats, increasingly located in the suburbs and in America’s cities, gave up on culturally conservative voters and decided the party should avoid talking about gun control if it hoped to woo any working-class whites.
A costly shift
But the shift of culturally conservative voters to the GOP has not been without its downside.
These voters, too often, helped make the party appear intolerant, mean-spirited and extreme, including on issues such as gun control. This eventually produced a new fracture in the electorate — and the emergence of a new crucial voting group, suburban voters.
The suburbs were, of course, once reliably Republican, whether they were in southeast Pennsylvania, in upscale counties outside New York City or in areas outside Washington, D.C.
The increasing cultural conservatism of the Republican Party made many suburban voters uncomfortable, but as long as the focus was on the liberalism of the Democrats (or the failures of Democratic incumbents), suburban voters usually stuck with the GOP.
But as Republicans moved right on cultural issues, many suburbs started to slide a bit more left.
Upscale Republican bastions, such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Nassau and Westchester counties in New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia, suddenly found themselves voting Democratic.
Now, suburban voters increasingly find that on guns they have more in common with their urban friends than with their rural ones. Some restrictions on guns, in particular, seem increasingly reasonable to swing voters after numerous mass shootings. As the issue has become more salient politically, it has also become potentially more effective for Democrats.
A winning shift
Of course, conservatives will point out that there are many pro-NRA voters, and “pro-gun” voters have tended to vote on one issue, guns, while supporters of gun control vote on a much broader range of issues.
The problem with that argument is that the party coalitions have changed.
Opponents of new gun controls are now so thoroughly integrated into the GOP that they are part of that party’s political base. Because they are no longer swing voters, they no longer have the electoral clout they once did.
Some Democrats from conservative, largely rural states or congressional districts will need pro-gun voters to win elections, and they will try to walk a fine line on the issue, as Conor Lamb is trying to do now in a western Pennsylvania House special election.
But in many states and districts, swing suburbanites — and particularly suburban women — are a much more important constituency than are NRA members because those suburban voters can decide which party wins — just the way anti-gun control voters once could.
This increased attention from suburbanites has changed the electoral equation for 2018, and that is why Democrats now should benefit from any focus on gun control issues.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2018.
It is no secret that the Republican strategy to keep the House in 2018 includes running against Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC have run television ads during special elections this cycle linking Democratic nominees to Pelosi, and GOP strategists are gleeful when they talk about the Democratic leader’s baggage and their intention to use her in their TV ads.
The strategy is a reasonable one. After all, when a president is as unpopular as Donald Trump, the best strategy for the president’s party is to try to make the election a referendum on someone or something else. Moreover, it’s usually easier to motivate voters to turn out against a villain than it is to generate enthusiasm about your own incumbent’s accomplishments and promises.
Pelosi isn’t the first House speaker to become the target of the political opposition.
In 1980, congressional Republicans ran a now-famous television ad that argued “the Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican for a change.” The spot featured an actor who looked like House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Less than two decades later, Democrats were running against Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Pelosi’s poll numbers are mediocre at best, with anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of voters saying that they have a favorable view of her. In contrast, about half of respondents have an unfavorable view.
For some, Pelosi is a “San Francisco liberal” who represents everything wrong with the left, from culture and values to taxes and government spending.
But Pelosi’s ideology and longevity are not the only reasons her poll numbers are bad. In an article last June, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted that the poll numbers of other legislative leaders, including John A. Boehner, Paul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, were also terrible. He explained that their ratings tanked when they moved into the congressional leadership.
Will it work?
Still, it is far from clear that running against Pelosi this year will be effective among voters who matter, no matter how bad her numbers are and no matter what a handful of special elections showed in 2017.
Pelosi is the House minority leader at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. She is a public figure, certainly, but her role is not particularly high profile now, and she has little power on Capitol Hill. Trump, in contrast, dominates the political stage and occupies the most powerful position in the government. Given that, it will be challenging for Republican nominees around the country to make the midterm elections “about” Pelosi.
Trump’s ratings generally are no better than Pelosi’s. In the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings for Trump, while 56 percent had negative feelings. (Obama’s ratings were 57 percent positive and 29 percent negative.)
Moreover, it’s surely the case that the voters with the strongest dislike for Pelosi are conservative Republicans, who have disagreed with her on politics and policy for decades and who are among the president’s strongest supporters. They are likely to turn out and vote Republican whether or not Republican campaigns feature Pelosi in TV spots.
Weaker partisans, swing voters and less ideological voters are less likely to be strongly anti-Pelosi, and it is difficult to believe that they will see the midterm election as a choice between Trump and Pelosi rather than as a referendum on the president and his party.
Who’s being judged?
History, after all, strongly suggests that midterms tend to be referenda on the man in the White House, not on House minority leaders.
In the last 80 years, the president’s party has gained seats twice in midterms — once after the Sept. 11 attacks and once in 1998, when Republican legislators invited a backlash by ignoring public opinion and doggedly pursuing Bill Clinton’s impeachment even though most voters had a very favorable view of the president’s job performance and opposed impeachment.
Instead of gaining a handful of House seats, as was expected, the GOP lost a handful of seats during Clinton’s second midterm, when the president was on the defensive because of the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans unwisely made the midterms about impeachment.
Republicans’ best chance for maintaining control of the House this November rests on a combination of events and circumstances, including nasty Democratic primaries that produce weaker nominees, Republican candidates’ efforts to localize their races, and developments that energize the GOP or depress Democratic turnout.
Running against Pelosi could fit into that equation, but it is difficult to imagine that it would move the needle significantly.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 21, 2018.
While most people seem fascinated by shifts in presidential job approval and national ballot tests, I’ve always thought that the “role of government” question asked in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The responses to that question offer interesting insights into how voters see government, which, in turn, affects how they view the two parties and how they behave when the next election rolls around.
Officeholders and activists tend to be ideologues, viewing every election result and legislative initiative from their own worldview.
Conservatives always favor less government, while progressives favor more, no matter what government is doing at a particular moment. But Americans as a whole are more pragmatic.
They swing from thinking there is too much government to thinking that government is doing too little. Invariably, their attitudes reflect the news, the behavior of Congress and the agenda of the president.
During activist, liberal presidencies, voters start showing their nervousness about too much government, too much regulation and too much social engineering. They tilt toward thinking that government is doing things better left to the private sector.
But during a more pro-business, conservative administration, those same voters worry that the private sector will abuse its freedom and power. And they start to think that government isn’t doing enough to protect the rights of individuals.
The “role of government” question, which has been asked by the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey since at least 1995, seeks to take the public’s temperature about the correct role of government. The two most recent polls that asked respondents about their views of government were conducted after Trump became president — April 2017 and January 2018.
Both surveys showed a dramatic swing toward concern that government is not doing enough “to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.”
In the Jan. 13-17, 2018, survey, 58 percent of adults said government should do more, while only 38 percent said government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” — a 20-point difference. That is a huge gap, historically.
In most cases, the difference between the two alternatives has been in the low- to middle-single digits. While men split roughly evenly between the two alternatives in this month’s survey, women said government should “do more” by a ratio of at least 2-to-1. It was even higher for women with at least a college degree.
The change from a January 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey (the beginning of Barack Obama’s second year in the White House) is remarkable.
While 45 percent of women with at least a college degree said in 2010 that government should do more, 69 percent said so this year — an increase of 24 points.
Among whites, the number saying government should do more shot up from 37 percent in 2010 to 54 percent this month.
And in the suburbs, respondents calling for more government action grew from 39 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2018.
The large margins among all respondents favoring “more government” is a dramatic change from surveys conducted a few years ago, when just a few points separated the two groups.
In July 2015, 50 percent of respondents said government should do more to help people, while 46 percent said it was doing too many things better left to business and individuals.
In November 2014, the gap was 6 points (52 percent “do more” to 46 percent “doing too much”). And in June 2014, 50 percent of Americans thought government was doing too many things, while only 46 percent thought government should do more.
In fact, the last time those favoring “more government” had an edge comparable to this month’s survey was in September 2007, when respondents said the government should do more by a margin of 17 points. Of course, Barack Obama was elected president shortly, about a year later.
Before you jump to conclusions about the midterms or 2020, let me offer two caveats.
First, the “role of government” numbers can jump around (sometimes because of short-term events), so it is wise to be cautious about reading too much into a survey or two.
For example, in June 2013, equal numbers of respondents thought government was doing too much and not doing enough. Three months later, by 8 points, respondents thought government should do more. Nine months later, respondents, by 4 points, thought government was doing too much.
Second, Donald Trump’s agenda isn’t easily classified as either “pro-government” or “pro-business.”
While he actively promotes deregulation and empowering corporate America, he has also been active highlighting trade issues, criticizing individual companies and advocating more jobs.
Given that, it probably isn’t surprising that the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 30 percent of Trump voters saying that government isn’t doing enough, compared to only 12 percent of Hillary Clinton voters who said government is doing too many things.
So Trump isn’t necessarily in as bad a position as you might think, given the responses to the “role of government” question.
Still, the dramatic shift in sentiment about the government’s role and behavior from before Trump’s election to after suggests that many voters believe the president and his party have gone too far to the right, favoring business and private groups at the expense of many Americans.
Moreover, the “role of government” numbers seem consistent with the president’s poor job approval numbers even at a time of economic expansion and strong Wall Street performance.
Together, the responses from the two polls are a warning to the GOP about what November could look like.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 30, 2018.
Over the past few weeks, members of Congress, journalists and television hosts agreed on one thing: The looming government shutdown was a huge deal. Then, after the shutdown ended, those same people pontificated about who won and who lost, as well as about liberal dissatisfaction with the deal to open the government. Here is my advice: ignore most or all of this chatter.
Instead, focus on two new national polls, one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and the other from The Washington Post and ABC News.
They are far more helpful in understanding the political landscape and how the brief shutdown will affect our politics.
Because the shutdown was never a big deal politically. As long as it didn’t drag on for weeks and months, the shutdown was always more of an opportunity for feigned outrage, finger-pointing and media hype than political realignment.
In October and November of 2013, Republicans got blamed for the government shutdown, leading many observers to predict the party would suffer in the 2014 midterms.
But less than a couple of months later, the political situation flipped after the inept rollout of the health care law overshadowed the shutdown.
In November 2014, the GOP gained House and Senate seats.
In other words, the 2013 shutdown was a big deal — until it wasn’t.
Once again, other developments this year — President Donald Trump’s tweets, the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, events associated with North Korea, how Congress handles the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and infrastructure spending, and five other things I can’t imagine now — will overshadow memories of the shutdown well before Americans go to the polls in November.
So who won the shutdown fight?
Nobody, if by “won” you mean redefined the parties and changed the trajectory of the election cycle.
Democrats joined Republicans to shut off debate and advance a three-week stopgap measure after receiving assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he intends to hold votes on immigration after Feb. 8.
Many observers (including almost everyone on CNN on Monday) noted that McConnell never guaranteed anything, leading them to conclude that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had “lost.”
But Schumer put a stake in the ground, elevated an issue (DACA) that is a priority for his party and its voters, and withdrew to fight another day — possibly in less than three weeks.
Now, he and his party are in a better position to fight McConnell, House Republicans or the president if and when Congress fails to protect the Dreamers, young people brought illegally to the United States as children, who are protected by DACA.
The vote to cut off debate certainly revealed a divide on tactics and strategy inside Democratic ranks.
But while that division may well matter in the race for the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2020, it won’t be a big deal in 2018. Liberal Democrats aren’t going to stay home in November.
So, while you should keep your eye on immigration as a potentially big midterm issue, don’t get too caught up in dissecting the brief government shutdown. It was a skirmish, not a major war.
But two very recent national surveys that show how voters see the country — and how those perceptions affect future political confrontations — are worth your attention.
Most people use their existing impressions about the parties and the nation’s leaders as a lens through which to view and understand events.
Since the president’s numbers are so poor, every political confrontation in which he is involved contains risk for his party.
Trump’s job approval and personal ratings in the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey were almost identical. Only 39 percent of respondents approved of his job performance and only 36 percent had a positive view him.
On the other hand, 57 percent of respondents disapproved of his job performance and 56 percent disapproved of him personally.
Even worse for Republicans, 51 percent of those surveyed strongly disapproved of the president’s performance and 48 percent viewed him “very” negatively.
The same poll gave the president very weak scores for “caring about average people,” “being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency,” “being honest and trustworthy,” and “having the right temperament.”
Moreover, a stunning 52 percent of those polled said they don’t like Trump personally and they disapprove of many of his policies.
The Jan. 15-18 ABC News/Washington Post poll painted a very similar picture. It showed Trump’s job approval rating at 36 percent and voters critical of his positions on immigrants, the Mueller investigation and the new tax law.
The problem for Republicans is that voters are not likely to believe explanations offered by politicians they don’t like. And many of them really don’t like Trump, personally or professionally. (The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed McConnell’s personal ratings at 13 percent positive/39 percent negative — even worse than Trump’s.)
Any dramatic event that catches the national media’s attention — and the public’s — offers an opportunity for the parties and the president to redefine themselves and their opponents. But it is also true that you can’t make a first impression twice.
The president is not an ill-defined public figure. Americans know who he is and what he believes. And that is a problem for many Republicans next week, next month and in the fall.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 24, 2018.