Given the warped time-space continuum in which those of us in DC live – a flood of news, tweets, and leaks makes each day feel like a week – it may be hard to comprehend ‘real’ time. So, let me help out. We are less than six months – 173 days – from the midterm elections.
So, it’s a good time to check in on what we know – and still don’t know – about how the midterms are shaping up.
Trump and the GOP are in a better place than they were this fall. The question is whether it is good enough to hold the House?
Unlike most modern presidents, President Trump had no honeymoon. His highest approval ratings – taken just after the inauguration – were 45-46 percent. As such, he hasn’t had the precipitous decline in ratings like President Obama who went from 67 percent in January of 2009 to 45 percent in October of 2010.
It’s also true that Trump has a very narrow ‘trading range’ on job approval. His presidency has been focused almost singularly on keeping his base happy rather than trying to expand his appeal to those who aren’t currently in his base. That limits his “ceiling” to 45-46 percent job approval. Having the solid support of his base also means that he also has a pretty solid floor.
It’s also the case that Trump’s low approval ratings are no longer a historic aberration. His 42 percent showing is basically where Presidents Carter and Reagan were at this point in their presidencies, though Trump’s approval ratings are significantly lower than where Presidents Clinton and Obama were at this point in their tenure.
Of course, all of those presidents went on to have pretty ugly midterm elections. Carter – who bounced back to 49 percent by Election Day – saw his party lose *just* 15 seats, while Republicans lost 26 in 1982. Obama and Clinton came into Election Day with approval ratings in the mid-40’s and their party was routed in those midterm elections.
Approval Ratings At This Point In the Election Cycle
Earlier this fall, Democrats enjoyed double-digit leads on the generic ballot rating. Today, the national generic average is closer to 5 to 6 points.
Generic Ballot Pollings Aggregates: May 17, 2018
In other words, the generic ballot is a nice ‘stand-in’ for overall mood and direction, but it’s pretty terrible at determining how individual candidates and districts are performing.
Pay attention to where the president’s job approval is in individual states or districts, not his performance in that district back in 2016. In looking at the result of many of the special elections that have taken place thus far, the Republican candidate’s vote share was close to or equaled Trump’s overall job approval rating in the district or state. For example, Trump carried PA-18 with 58 percent of the vote. Yet, going into the special election, his job approval rating in the district stood at a more modest 49 percent. Republican Rick Saccone took 49 percent of the vote.
To be fair, an open seat special election is a different beast from an incumbent versus a challenger contest in a "normal" election. An incumbent comes to the table with some built-in advantages like name recognition, experience and a campaign war chest. Turnout will also be higher. However, even if the two candidates want to talk about anything but Trump, this election will be a referendum on the president. Voters’ perceptions of the president aren’t tied as much to issues as they are to his personality. This is also why Trump’s up tick in job approval matters. The closer he is to 50 percent or higher in a district, the better the chances for the Republican.
When describing a district, many political types refer to Trump or Clinton’s "margin" of victory there in 2016. Like, "this is a district Trump carried by 14 points," or "Hillary won here by 4." But, the margin doesn’t adequately capture the competitiveness of many districts. For example, Trump carried NM-02 by 10 points, yet his vote share was only 50 percent. A combination of Clinton under-performance and third-party votes, makes this district look less competitive than it really is. Why does that matter in 2018? A Republican candidate’s fate is tied closely to the performance of the president. There are 57 CD’s that Trump won by less than 53 percent. This is a better universe of potentially competitive districts to use than just whether Clinton or Trump won it – or what the margin was.
This is also why we can put a district like Rep. Ted Budd’s (R) NC-13 - which Trump carried by 9 points, but took just 53 percent - in the same category as Mimi Walters’ (R) CA-45 – which Clinton carried by 5 points, but took only 49.8 percent.
The "focus on the vote share not the margin" rule applies to interpreting head-to-head match-ups as well. Where we got into trouble in 2016 was by focusing too much on the margin of Clinton’s lead in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and not enough on the fact that she was stuck in the mid-40s. An incumbent ahead by 10 points sounds impressive. But, when that 10-point lead is 43 to 33 percent, you should be less impressed.
Minutes after Speaker Paul Ryan announced his decision not to seek re-election, many in the chattering class argued that the floodgates were now open and a rash of GOP retirements would follow. Well, that was just over a month ago, and the retirements haven’t happened. That’s good news for the GOP who can’t afford to defend any more vulnerable open seats.
Both sides agree that the biggest challenges for Republicans in 2018 is the so-called “enthusiasm gap.” In elections thus far, Democrats have proven to be more energized and engaged as voters than Republicans.
Intensity in opposition to the president – as measured by ‘strong disapproval’ – continues to remain higher than the ‘strong approval’ ratings for Trump.
However, there are some signs that GOP voters may be catching up with Democrats on the measure of intensity. Well-respected GOP pollster David Winston (an expert on all things House), wrote recently: "New surveys — private and media polls — seem to show that the enthusiasm gap, which has plagued the Republican base for the past year, might, at last, be closing. In our April 28-30 Winning the Issues survey, we asked voters to tell us how likely they are to vote in November on a 1-9 scale, with 1 meaning a voter was not planning on going to the polls and 9 meaning they absolutely would. What we found was good news for Republicans. Both parties are at parity when it comes to self-reported likelihood of voting. Conservative Republicans came in at 8.22 with Republicans overall at 8.16. Democrats, whose enthusiasm for voting had previously topped Republicans, are now at 8.12, with liberal Democrats at 8.20."
Part of the reason for the increase in enthusiasm is the fact that Republicans now have something around which to rally – specifically an improved economy and tax cut law. It also helps that the president and the GOP-controlled Congress are not currently at war with one another as they were during the health care debate. Back then, congressional Republicans not only lacked substantive accomplishments, but the president was actively calling them out on Twitter as incompetent.
I witnessed this change in Republican mood at a focus group of suburban Milwaukee voters sponsored by Emory University. The six Trump voters in the room were generally happy with Trump’s tenure as president. When asked for a one-word description of the president, they used words like "bold," "innovator" and "surprisingly good." This stands in stark contrast to the Emory Focus group held in Pittsburgh last summer. I wrote this about the Pittsburgh group:
Of the twelve voters in the room, six had voted for Trump. At least two of them were "reluctant" Trump voters who admitted publicly that they chose Trump as a lesser of two evils. Even so, not one of the six showed any enthusiasm for the President. All admitted to being disappointed in him in some way. But, their disappointments were about personnel and personality, not policy. As one voter (I didn’t catch his name at the time), said, "the messenger is overwhelming the message."
Peter Hart, the esteemed pollster and moderator of these groups, cited the strong economy and the tax cut bill as the driver of the improved mood of the Trump voters in the room. Last year, Hart told me, "Trump’s tweets were all encompassing" and all that anyone – Democrat or Republican – could talk about. This year, Hart noted, Republicans have something tangible, "the tax cut and economy to talk about."
A united and energized GOP base is critical to Republicans ability to hold their majority in the House. But, even if they turn out their base, they can’t afford to lose independents by double digits.
In the last three ‘wave’ House elections – 1994, 2006, and 2010, the winning party carried the independent vote by 14 to 19 points.
The most recent polls from CBS, CNN, and Monmouth put Trump’s approval rating among independents anywhere between -8 and -18. In these same polls, Trump’s approval ratings among independents match the vote independent voters give to a “generic” Republican. For example, in the CBS poll, Trump’s approval rating among independents is 37 percent. In the generic ballot, the Republican receives 38 percent of the independent vote. However, Democrats aren’t getting all of those independent voters who currently “disapprove” of the job Trump is doing. For example, the CNN poll shows Trump’s approval rating among independents at a dismal 38 percent favorable to 55 percent unfavorable. Yet, on the generic ballot, Democrats are only getting 43 percent of the independent vote, not 55 percent.
So, where will these undecided independent voters tip? The CBS poll has good news for both parties. Republicans want to make the election a referendum on the economy. Good news, 27 percent of independent voters say the economy is the “most important” issue for them in deciding their vote for Congress. Democrats want to make health care a centerpiece of the election. Good news for Democrats, 25 percent of independents see health care as their number one issue.
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