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.

Steve Bannon Is Right About the Midterms — Until He Isn’t

Former Trump campaign chief executive and White House strategist Steve Bannon recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the midterm elections will be “an up or down vote” on the president. He also asserted that it’s imperative that Donald Trump nationalize the midterm elections.

“Trump’s second presidential race will be on Nov. 6 of this year. He’s on the ballot, and we’re going to have an up or down vote. Do you back Trump’s program, OK, with all that’s good and all that’s bad? Do you back Trump’s program, or do you back removing him?” Bannon told Zakaria.

Bannon surely is correct that the November elections will largely be about Trump. The incumbent president and his administration’s performance have almost always been the single most important factor in midterm balloting.

But in a number of ways, Bannon is dead wrong about the midterms.

No choice at all

First, he suggests that the election essentially will be a “choice” between Trump and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, or between Trump and impeachment.

Those scenarios are unlikely.

While Republicans would prefer to make the upcoming midterms into a choice, most midterm elections are referendums on the occupant of the White House.

I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to make the midterms “about” something other than the sitting president, but the burden of proof is on the GOP to do that.

Presidential elections inevitably involve choices, but midterms usually don’t, since the out-party rarely has a de facto leader who is salient enough to be an alternative to the president.

Indeed, this year, some observers have criticized the Democrats for not having a leader or even a coherent, unified message.

Republicans tried to make the special election in Pennsylvania 18th District about Pelosi, and the results suggest they had little success. Trump carried that district by nearly 20 points in 2016, but Democrat Conor Lamb, a self-styled pragmatist, won the March contest even though Republicans repeatedly portrayed him as a tool of liberal Pelosi.

Bannon certainly is right that making the midterms into a referendum on impeachment would be desirable for Trump and the GOP. And some Democrats, particularly those in the most liberal and Democratic areas, are unwisely talking about impeachment.

But Pelosi has made it clear that she opposes such talk, and Democrats in competitive states and districts surely will go out of their way to defuse impeachment as a possibility.

Clearly, the most partisan and ideological Republicans believe that impeachment is a real issue, but those voters are already Trump’s strongest supporters and likely to turn out in the fall. Again, the burden is on the GOP to make 2018 “about” impeachment in those states and districts that matter most.

All politics is local

Second, Bannon is also wrong when he says it is imperative that Trump and the GOP nationalize the midterm elections.

It would be much better for Republicans in Democratic and swing districts to localize the elections.

Those Republicans could then run on their records rather than have voters see the midterms as about Trump, with all his personal baggage.

But it is difficult to take the sitting president out of the midterm equation, which is why so many past officeholders have been swept out in partisan waves.

A minority bump?

Third, Bannon is dealing in wishful thinking when he suggests that Trump and the GOP are making major inroads with minorities, in large part because of decreasing unemployment and immigration.

So far, there is little evidence that Trump’s standing among minorities is surging (though some improvement certainly is possible) or that minority voters are focused only on jobs.

The economy’s strength could boost Trump’s approval numbers and his party’s midterm performance among some, but opposition to the president rests more on his cultural agenda, his false statements, his efforts to undermine crucial American institutions, and his contempt for widely held American values.

Oddly, in a Washington Post column based on his CNN interview, Zakaria called Bannon’s recommendation to nationalize the midterms, apparently around immigration, “a brilliant electoral strategy,” since it has both economic and cultural appeal.

Take a moment to imagine what Election Day 2018 would look like after Trump spent three or four months hammering away in tweets and at campaign rallies about “the wall,” NFL players, sanctuary cities and immigrant gang members.

Imagine what he might say when he goes off-script. Add to that Bannon’s prediction that Trump will “shut down the government” in the fall if Congress doesn’t fully fund “the Southern wall.”

That kind of campaign would only add to the current impression that Trump is mean-spirited, intolerant, divisive and even racist.

Doubling down on that reputation might help him energize his base, but it would not help him with African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans or younger voters.

More importantly, it would almost certainly add to his growing problems with the key group of this year’s midterms: white, college-educated women, particularly those in the suburbs.

That doesn’t sound “brilliant” to me.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 5, 2018.