Breaking the Midterm Mode: Both Parties Make it About Trump

For decades, the rule of thumb for campaigns during midterm elections has been the same: When the president is popular, the president’s party tries to nationalize the election, and the opposition attempts to localize it. On the other hand, when the president is unpopular, his party’s nominees try to localize while the opposition tries to make the election a national referendum on his performance. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2018 has broken that mold.

Both sides are trying to nationalize the November election.

President Donald Trump’s job approval rating sits somewhere between 38 percent and 42 percent, a level that in the past would have kept him locked up in the White House or doing private fundraising events throughout the election year. And yet, the president continues to fly around the country to attend rally after rally.

True, the rallies tend to be in pro-Trump areas, but the coverage of those events and the president’s public schedule make him the center of attention nationally.

Moreover, Trump goes out of his way to argue that the midterms are about him, that voting for Republican candidates is the same thing as voting for him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Trump wants to make the 2018 elections about him. He seems to think that everything is about him.

Anyway, this odd situation whereby both parties are trying to make the upcoming election about Trump obviously follows from the polarization in the country.

Both approval and disapproval of the president are stunningly intense.

Three out of four respondents in a Sept. 16-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll either strongly approved or strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Because of that — and because of the Senate map, which includes a number of pro-Trump, pro-Republican states with Democratic incumbents — both national parties essentially are trying to nationalize the election.

For years now, party strategists have been obsessed with base turnout. While Trump lost the popular vote two years ago, his Electoral College victory and his reliance on higher turnout voters (e.g., white voters and older voters) have fueled GOP optimism about 2018.

Many Republican strategists have argued that if they can get their voters to turn out, as they did in 2016, the party can hold the House and expand its Senate majority.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe that weaker-than-anticipated base turnout last time cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, and the party needs only to boost its numbers among younger voters, minority voters and progressives to produce a blue wave — particularly if college-educated, suburban women are fleeing GOP candidates this year.

Given strategists’ assumptions, nationalizing the midterms seems to accomplish what both parties want — to encourage turnout among base voters.

But the nationalizing strategy has also made it much more difficult for party officeholders in the political center and who need to localize their races if they are going to have any chance of winning.

Republican incumbents in non-Trump districts, such as Virginia’s Barbara Comstock and Colorado’s Mike Coffman, have no chance of surviving a nationalized election next month.

They — and two-dozen other House Republicans seeking re-election or open seats — need to run on their own accomplishments and personal connections to district voters, but they can’t do that if the entire midterms are about Trump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already run a TV spot mocking Coffman’s promise to “stand up to Trump,” as well as a spot that labels Comstock “Barbara Trumpstock” because of her support for the president’s agenda.

DCCC ads in two Twin Cities districts, held by Republicans Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, specifically link those two incumbents to the president. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Trump has essentially thrown pragmatic incumbent House members under the bus by making himself the focus of the midterms.

At the same time, of course, Trump has made it more difficult for Democratic senators seeking re-election in GOP-friendly states such as North Dakota and Missouri.

Heidi Heitkamp won election narrowly six-years ago by portraying herself as a “North Dakota Democrat,” not a “national Democrat,” but that is a much heavier lift this year, when everything is about Trump and the two parties.

I recently wrote that this election will rob the GOP of many of its more moderate and pragmatic members, making the party more conservative and less willing to compromise. The Democrats may become a more diverse group because the party will add both suburban pragmatists and progressives who embrace “social democracy.”

But the election will do something else. It will pull the two bodies of Congress further apart. The Senate majority will be even more the chamber of Trump, while the House will lead the opposition to him. In a system of checks and balances, that is not a prescription for getting legislation enacted.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on October 15, 2018.

Polling Still Points to Rough November for Republicans

If you trust the July 9-11 Fox News poll and the July 15-18 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey — and I have no reason not to — the GOP still looks headed for a difficult election and the likely loss of the House.

No, President Donald Trump’s voters are not fleeing him, and his personal poll numbers have not cratered even after his behavior at the NATO summit in Belgium and his Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin. So, maybe he really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. But that says something about Trump’s supporters, not the overall electorate.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the combination of national and state polling continues to show the party’s vulnerability as November approaches.

The most recent Fox News poll of registered voters found Trump’s job approval at 46 percent, while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of registered voters put his approval at 45 percent. Both numbers are up a point or two but generally within the low- to mid-40s range where they have been for most of this year. Trump, of course, drew 46.1 percent of the popular vote in 2016.

Fox showed Democrats with an overall 8-point advantage on the congressional generic ballot, while NBC News/Wall Street Journal put their advantage at 6 points.

Both surveys are well within the midrange of recent national surveys and approaching the +10 to +12 range Democrats probably need to flip the House.

The president’s standing among independent voters is of particular concern to Republican strategists. (I wrote about why in a May 30 column.)

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed Trump’s job rating among independents at 36 percent approve/58 percent disapprove, while Fox News found it at 40 percent approve/48 percent disapprove.

In both surveys, the president’s standing among independents was worse than among all voters.

In the congressional generic ballot, Fox News found independents now preferring Democrats by 13 points, 32 percent to 19 percent, while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed them backing a Democratic Congress by more than 20 points.

Two years ago

Both numbers stand in sharp contrast to the 2016 national House exit poll, which found independent voters went Republican by 6 points, 51 percent to 45 percent.

The most recent Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys give us some other interesting numbers to chew on, especially in light of the 2016 national House exit poll.

That poll showed whites voted Republican by 22 points (60 percent to 38 percent) in 2016. But the most recent Fox News survey showed the GOP’s generic ballot advantage among white voters this year is down to single digits, 49 percent to 41 percent.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found whites preferring the GOP by a nearly identical 9 points, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Older voters could be crucial in November, since they tend to turn out in high numbers.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed voters 65 and older giving Trump a job rating of 44 percent approve/55 percent disapprove and preferring a Democratic Congress by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent).

In contrast, the 2016 House exit poll found voters 65 and older backed the GOP by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent, in that election.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found key demographic groups — younger voters (ages 18-29), independents, suburban voters and white women — all looking very likely to perform the way they did in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

Keeping the base

To be sure, Trump remains strong among his core constituencies — white men, white men without a college degree, self-identified Republicans and rural voters, for example — but none of those groups are normally considered swing voters, though a strong turnout by those groups would obviously benefit the president.

A handful of state and district polls over the last month also showed surprising Democratic strength in the Senate races in West Virginia and Tennessee, California’s 48th District, North Carolina’s 9th District and even West Virginia’s 3rd District.

Clearly, the political landscape remains dangerous for the GOP, though Democrats can’t claim victory yet. This cake is not yet baked.

So far, there is no evidence of wholesale defections from Trump among those who voted for him in 2016.

The president has generally played to his base, and most true-blue Trump loyalists are so invested in him that they would not even consider voting Democratic in the fall.

But Trump has done nothing to improve his standing with voters who supported Hillary Clinton and progressive Democrats who couldn’t make themselves vote for her.

At the same time, the president’s policies on trade, his incomprehensible delay in blaming Putin for interfering in the 2016 election, his positions on guns and immigration, and his insensitive comments about race may eventually cost him some support among those who voted for him (even if they are not yet ready to bolt Trump now).

But Democrats don’t need the votes of Trump loyalists to ride a political wave into the House. They merely need to turn out Democrats and win independents by a substantial margin.

Any additional leakage of GOP voters to the Democrats in November — or a drop in Republican turnout for the midterms — would make the wave bigger.

Events could change the election’s trajectory, of course, and the president is likely to have a few ups and a few downs between now and November.

But it’s more likely that the daily dose of chaos from the White House that surely will continue to Election Day will produce more fatigue with the White House on the right and in the center than on the left, where enthusiasm remains high.

The column appeared originally in Roll Call on July 24, 2018.

GOP Senate Targets Fade From View

When this election cycle began, handicappers repeatedly pointed out that 10 Democratic Senate incumbents from states carried by Donald Trump would be on the ballot in 2018. That count was accurate, and the point behind it obvious — Republicans had a long list of opportunities.

But now even the most partisan Republicans are acknowledging that the list of serious targets is shrinking to five or six states. Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota and Florida are certainly in play, but how are the other competitive Senate races holding up?

Michigan

Michigan was never going to be more than a footnote in the list of Republican Senate opportunities this cycle, and it still looks like a snoozer.

Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow isn’t very controversial, and Trump’s razor-thin 11,000-vote margin (two-tenths of a percentage point) looks like a fluke rather than a sign the state is realigning.

The state’s filing deadline passed a couple of weeks ago, and two GOP hopefuls who have never held office will fight it out for their party’s nomination in an August primary. Neither party is spending in this race, and nobody is taking the general election in Michigan seriously at this point.

Pennsylvania

Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania by seven-tenths of a point — about 44,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast. Unlike Michigan, where Republicans will pick between two political neophytes, the Keystone State GOP has two officeholders in the May 15 Senate primary: state Rep. Jim Christiana and Rep. Lou Barletta.

Barletta served as mayor of Hazleton before winning election to Congress in 2010. He has been re-elected three times and has earned a reputation as a leading critic of illegal immigration and a loyal Trump supporter.

Incumbent Democrat Bob Casey served as state auditor and state treasurer before being elected to the Senate in 2006. He has a reputation as someone who connects with working-class voters — just the kind of voters who defected to Trump and whom Democrats need to win back.

The recent special election in southwestern Pennsylvania was terrible news for Trump loyalists, and any midterm election drag is likely to put the Senate race beyond reach for Barletta, no matter how effusively Trump promotes the Republican congressman. As in Michigan, the parties are not spending money in Pennsylvania, and the Senate race doesn’t look very exciting.

Wisconsin

Republicans have a lively Senate race underway in Wisconsin, pitting state Sen. Leah Vukmir against businessman Kevin Nicholson, and outside groups have already spent heavily to damage Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. But there is growing pessimism among Republicans that they can defeat one of the Senate’s more liberal members.

As in the Keystone State, Trump won Wisconsin by seven-tenths of a point. But Democrats recently won a state Senate special election and an election to fill a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, suggesting that the Trump coalition is shrinking or that Democratic voters are energized. Either way, it’s not good news for the president’s party in the Badger State.

Baldwin’s numbers are surprisingly strong, in part because Democratic numbers in the northern part of the state have bounced back. I wouldn’t ignore the Senate race, but it isn’t nearly as competitive as Republicans had once hoped and Democrats had once feared.

Ohio

Given Trump’s 450,000-vote victory in Ohio, you might think the GOP is awash in confidence about Rep. James B. Renacci’s prospects of kicking Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown out of office. They’re not.

Brown is a liberal firebrand, but on tariffs, trade and working-class issues, he was Trump before Trump. The populist Democrat is a strong campaigner who relishes attacking. He isn’t likely to get a lot of Republican votes, but he’ll win back many Democrats (and independents) who defected to Trump in 2016.

This race is getting surprisingly little buzz, which reflects the lack of real Republican optimism about November.

Montana

Finally, Republicans aren’t as upbeat about their chances of ousting Montana Sen. Jon Tester as you might think. Of course, now that Trump has targeted Tester for leading the change against Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president’s former choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, that could change. And Montana is still a very “red” state.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the state in 2016, so Tester certainly can’t take his re-election for granted. GOP veterans of Capitol Hill note that unlike some vulnerable Democrats, Tester isn’t worrying about establishing his independence or proving that he is open to Trump’s leadership. Instead, he is opposing the president consistently.

Democrats worry that Tester can be a little headstrong, but they note that the senator has a great brand in his state and the likely GOP nominee isn’t all that intimidating. The Republican field in the race includes former judge and onetime state Rep. Russ Fagg, state Auditor Matt Rosendale (the favorite), a state senator and a businessman.

Of course, Montana still is a competitive contest that should be treated as a serious Republican takeover opportunity. But given the incumbents and the cycle, the Democrats probably have a narrow advantage in both Montana and Florida. Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia remain much better GOP takeover opportunities.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 3, 2018.