With the midterm elections less than six months away, the question seems to be whether we are at a new transition point.
Last fall, when Election Day was a year out, President Trump’s job-approval-rating averages seemed mired in the high 30s, with Republicans behind on the generic congressional ballot test by as much as a dozen points. A lack of any major legislative accomplishments so far left independents unimpressed and Republicans disillusioned. Democrats were then and remain today infuriated by Trump’s election and virtually everything that he has said and done since then. After the tax cuts passed in December, GOP voters were mollified that the 2016 election results were not completely for naught and, at least for a time, some independent voters seemed less critical.
Over the past 90 days, the president’s approval ratings have ticked up to the low-to-mid 40s—still extremely low for elected incumbent presidents in their second year in office, but certainly better from where they had been. In the April 30-May 6 Gallup poll, Trump’s approval rating stood at 42 percent. That is the same as the previous week, and his disapproval rating of 52 percent was a point lower than the week of April 23-29.
This is the first time in Trump’s presidency that his Gallup approval rating of 42 percent has reached a comparable level to any president in modern times; President Carter had dropped to 42 percent in May 1978. In May of their second year in office, George W. Bush was at 77 percent, George H.W. Bush at 65 percent, Bill Clinton at 51 percent, Barack Obama at 48 percent, and Ronald Reagan at 45 percent. Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama all saw their parties lose double-digit House seats in the subsequent midterms. (The elder Bush lost eight seats in 1990, and his son—still wildly popular after the 9/11 attacks—actually gained seats in 2002.)
In the generic-ballot test, the GOP is now typically behind by mid-to-high single digits. As with Trump’s approval rating, Republicans are still in an alarming position on that front, but better than they were.
The improvement late last year seemed very clearly to be related to the tax cut, something almost universally supported by Republican and GOP-leaning independents, if few others. The recent uptick seems more likely to have been triggered by good economic numbers and promising developments on the Korean peninsula. For all of Trump’s ill-advised statements and actions, the wheels have not completely come off of the bus. What’s not clear is whether that dynamic—if it lasts—is enough for Republicans to retain their House and Senate majorities.
For congressional Republicans, one question is whether they can develop and convey a message of legislative accomplishments distinct from Trump. Most House Republicans seem determined—or in some cases, at least resigned—to bear-hugging Trump, something that their base demands, though it does motivate Democratic voters and leaves most independent and swing voters unimpressed at best. In other words, Hill Republicans have done little if anything to connect with the 55 to 60 percent of Americans who do not explicitly approve of the job that Trump is doing.
One thing to remember about midterm elections is that roughly a third fewer people vote in them than in presidential elections. The people who disproportionately participate in midterms are people who, as my mother used to say, “have their noses out of joint”—in this case angry, fearful, or merely unhappy. Republicans should be quite sure that those who dislike or disapprove of Trump will turn out in big numbers.
Whether the Trump base will turn out when his name is not on the ballot is still uncertain. There were quite a few 2008 and 2012 Obama voters who did not deign to vote in 2010 and 2014; will Trump voters behave the same way? And will congressional Republicans provide a rationale for voters who are not part of the Trump base to throw a non-Trump Republican a midterm vote? So far, congressional Republicans are doing little to win over those who are not firmly in the Trump camp. They are allowing this election to frame up simply as for or against Trump—a decidedly risky strategy.
By the same token, Democrats are simply making this up or down on Trump as well, with little messaging beyond their basic opposition to him as both a person and a leader. While this election will largely be a referendum on Trump, it makes little sense for those in either party to not even bother to seek votes on any other basis.
That means congressional Republicans should point to nonideologically driven accomplishments, and Democrats need some kind of positive economic message—a case for what they would do if they got back in power.