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Back in 2016, lots of people, myself included, thought that Trump’s "all-base-all-the-time" strategy was ill-conceived. Sure, it would motivate his supporters, but it would also juice up turnout by Democrats and turn off critical swing/independent voters.
In the end, however, Trump’s one-sided intensity focus worked because there was not an equal amount of energy and enthusiasm on the Democratic side for Hillary Clinton. And, instead of turning off voters who weren’t as identified with a partisan tribe, Trump ultimately carried (narrowly) independent voters.
This year, however, is different. While Democrats may not have been fired up about Clinton, they are unified in their motivation to oust Trump. On top of that, independent voters, especially independent women voters, are soured on Trump and congressional Republicans.
At the same time, this election isn’t like 2006, either. That year, featured an unpopular GOP President and a dispirited GOP base. This year, Trump’s job approval is in the same range as Bush’s — but Trump is more popular among the GOP base than Bush was, and, GOP voters are as motivated to vote today as they were back at the height of the Tea Party influence.
In other words, it’s not fair to compare this election to 2016. But, it’s also not fair to suggest it’s 2006 either. It is…different.
A Pew poll taken Sept. 18-24 found "voter enthusiasm is at its highest level during any midterm in more than two decades." Among Republicans, 59 percent said they were more "enthusiastic than usual" to vote this fall. That is 2-points better than GOP enthusiasm at this point in October of 2010 (a high water mark for GOP), and 26 points (!!!) higher than their enthusiasm level in October of 2006 (their low point).
But, enthusiasm among Democrats is even higher. A whopping 67 percent of Democrats say they are “more enthusiastic than usual” to vote this fall. That is 31 points higher than it was in 2014 (the Democrats low-point) and 25 points higher than their enthusiasm level in 2006 (a great year for Democrats).
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also showed an enthusiasm bump for Republicans in September. Merged polling from January to August found 63 percent of Democrats highly interested in the election, compared to just 51 percent of Republicans (a 12-point gap). The September 16-19 poll, however, saw that gap shrink to just four points (65 percent Democratic to 61 percent Republican).
What both Pew and NBC/Wall Street Journal polling also show is that despite the focus on the “Kavanaugh bump” it’s clear that the enthusiasm was already high even before the Kavanaugh vote took place. As one Democratic consultant put it to me the other day: "we always go through this. We take a turn into October and Republicans start coming home and consolidating, and enthusiasm with them increases."
In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on: Republican enthusiasm is about on par with where it was at the height of the anti-Obama fervor of 2010. But, Democratic enthusiasm is higher than it has ever been.
Here’s the other thing. Regardless of where turn-out ends up in November, the enthusiasm gap advantage that Democrats enjoyed throughout 2017-2018 has already taken its toll. It was that energy that prompted a record number of Democrats to run for Congress. And, it prompted Democratic donors to pump a record amount of money to these candidates. Without that enthusiasm boost in 2017 and early 2018, Democrats don’t expand the playing field and don’t have enough money to keep this many seats in play. The barn door may be closed now, but the horses have already escaped.
But, enthusiasm and turnout is only one part of the two-part challenge for Republicans in the House. Earlier this year, a GOP strategist told me: "If we tie with the Democrats on turnout, but lose with Independents on vote preference, we are still in deep doodoo."
I checked in with that strategist this week who says that Kavanaugh "for now, solved the GOP enthusiasm problem. An incredible shift from two weeks ago." But, "the problems among Independents have not been solved by any stretch."
The most recent national polls from Marist, CNN, Quinnipiac and Gallup all show Trump’s job approval rating with independents in dismal territory — between 37 and 40 percent.
In the vote for Congress, independents favor a Democratic candidate anywhere from five points to 12 points.
The challenge is especially significant among independent women.
The most recent Marist College poll (Oct. 1), found Trump’s job approval with independents at 40 percent to 54 percent disapprove. But, that disapproval rating is driven primarily by women. Just 32 percent of independent women approve of the job Trump is doing to 61 percent who disapprove. Among independent men, opinions of Trump are evenly divided (48 percent to 47 percent unfavorable). On their preference for Congress, independents give Democrats a 5-point advantage (41 percent to 36 percent). But, among independent women, that gap is 15-points (45 percent Democrat to 30 percent Republican). Independent men prefer Republicans, but by a smaller 5 percent margin (42 percent to 37 percent).
In other words, a surge of Republican enthusiasm isn’t enough for Republicans in districts where:
- Democratic enthusiasm is also higher than ever
- independent women voters are breaking against them by 15 points.
And, here’s the thing, guess where a lot of these independent women live; in these suburban swing districts that will determine House control. There is a reason why almost half of the 29 GOP-held seats in Toss Up are suburban districts.
In fact, an interesting dynamic to watch on November 6 is the number of Republican-held seats Democrats win in districts that were carried by Romney in 2012 and Clinton in 2016 vs. those that Obama won in 2012, but Trump carried in 2016.
All of the 13 Romney/Clinton districts are in the suburbs, including some of the wealthiest and most highly educated districts in the country (IL-06, TX-32, KS-03, VA-10). All are currently sitting in Toss-Up or worse.
Meanwhile, the Obama/Trump districts are in the more rural, less highly educated and less affluent districts in the midwest (IL-12, MN-02 ), and upper northeast (ME-02 and NY-21). But, of those 12 GOP-held districts, only eight are in toss-up are worse. The other four - all on Long Island or in upstate New York, are in the Lean or Likely Republican category. Trump does not carry the same drag in these CDs that he does in the Romney/Clinton ones. Take a look at Rep. Elise Stefanik in the upstate New York 21st district. Obama carried this district by 6 points in 2012, but Trump won it by 14 points in 2016. Stefanik includes a shot of Trump campaigning with her in a recent campaign ad. That’s not something you will see the Republicans in the Romney/Clinton CD’s doing.
One of the reasons it’s so fun to cover politics is that every election is unique. Sure, there are themes and patterns that carry through from one election to the next. But, patterns are different from actual results. Trump’s polarizing presidency has engaged his base in a way that is similar to what we saw in 2016. Many underestimated it then and as such are overestimating it now. The reaction to this polarization from Democrats and independents is bigger - and stronger - than it was in 2016.
This year also has a lot of similarities to 2006, as Republican incumbents who easily carried their CDs just two years earlier, are getting pulled under by an unpopular president. But, back then, Democrats were picking up seats in rural/blue collar country (southeastern Ohio, western North Carolina and southern Indiana) and coming up short in suburban Philadelphia, Chicago and Connecticut. This year, however, those suburbs are more vulnerable than ever, while Democrats are more likely to fall short in the blue collar/rural districts that Obama carried back in 2012.
Image: Protest of the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 Credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin