There’s been lots of uncertainty and confusion in these first three weeks of the Trump Administration. But one thing is quite clear: Trump is going to run his White House like he ran his campaign. That means a chaotic and conflict driven management style fueled by Trump’s gut instincts and a small group of advisors (many of whom are pitted against one another). It also means a reliance on issues and strategies that rile up his base but do little to broaden his appeal. As one longtime GOP strategist said to me the other day, the Trump team has determined that “he can govern with a strong 44% of America behind him and worry about the others later.”
But can he govern this way? And, can his party survive in 2018 with this attitude?
One of the challenges of my job in the wake of the surprising Trump win (a victory that I obviously did not predict), is to not “over-correct” in analyzing subsequent elections. Trump succeeded when we all thought he’d fail. As such, many assume that the laws of political gravity will simply never apply to him. But, let’s take a look at the things that defied conventional wisdom in 2016 and whether they can hold true in 2018:
Trump won despite historically high disapproval ratings. Donald Trump has never been well liked. His unfavorable ratings hovered in the 60 percent range for the entirety of the campaign. He was the most unpopular person elected president in modern history. Of course, his opponent was almost equally as unpopular. In the end, lots of voters had to make a choice between two people they disliked. Trump won that fight. But, that won’t be the choice for voters in 2018. Hillary Clinton won’t be on the ballot. It will be a referendum on Trump. The more unpopular he and/or his policies are, the harder it is for his party to succeed in 2018. The good news for Trump today, his unfavorable ratings are 18 points lower than they were in June of 2015. The bad news, he’s still underwater.
Keeping your base energized is enough to overcome other shortcomings. All through 2016 we argued that Trump’s inability to expand his coalition to include younger, non-white and college educated voters would ultimately doom his chances. Obviously, it didn’t. His record levels of support from white, non-college educated voters and a drop in support for Clinton from Obama-coalition voters helped Trump squeak out wins in three “blue wall” Rust Belt states. But, his all-base-all-the-time strategy has the potential to drive non-traditional mid-term voters (read: Democratic leaning) to hit the polls in 2018. The greatest motivator when it comes to voting isn’t love, but hate. Trump had that on his side in 2016. Will Democrats have it in 2018? The early data suggests that the opposition is more motivated than those supportive of Trump. The most recent polls from CNN and Quinnipiac found 33 percent of all adults “strongly” approve of the job Trump is doing as president. Yet, a larger 45 percent “strongly” disapprove of the job he’s doing. That strong approve/disapprove number is one I will be watching as we get closer to 2018.
Republicans will stick with Trump. No matter what. Even with all of his shortcomings and troubles, Trump has been able to retain almost universal support from Republicans voters. The more the media and Democrats attack Trump, the more likely he keeps these folks on his side. Yet, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay there. They are happy to give him the benefit of the doubt on most issues. But, will they continue to do so when it’s an issue that directly impacts their lives in a negative way? Or, if he doesn’t deliver on the promises he did make?
Democrats have a geography problem. If we learned anything from 2016 it’s that the Democratic coalition of diverse voters is an advantage only if: 1. they show up to vote and 2. they are sitting in the right states. This has serious implications for 2018. Trump may be unpopular in California, but what about Montana or Indiana or North Dakota? Those three red states are more important to Democrats midterm chances in the Senate than the big blue one. At the House level, as I wrote last week, Democrats have few easy targets. But, as my colleague David Wasserman pointed out, in 2010 Democrats lost 22 seats in states that Obama carried in 2008 by 5 points or more. In other words, states/districts that look solid today based on their demographic make-up and past presidential vote may not be so solid a year from now.
The polling was all wrong in 2016, Why should we believe it in 2018? ALL the polling wasn’t wrong. The national polls weren’t that far off. But, many of the state polls were. Not just the public ones, mind you, but the private ones as well. There was too much faith placed on “analytics” and not enough on raw data. Models that worked for 2012 failed in 2016. To be sure, there were some unique variables in 2016, not the least of which was the fact that you had two super unpopular candidates at the top of the ticket. But, the quality of polling at the House and Senate level was shaky as well. This suggests a deeper problem than just a “Trump” factor. Even now, there’s early evidence that the type of poll used – online versus telephone – results in differing measures of support for Trump and his agenda. POLITICO’s Steven Shephard found that “Trump’s average approval rating in live-caller surveys is only 41 percent, with 49 percent disapproving. But averaging together the five most recent internet or automated phone calls yields a 48-percent approval rating for Trump, with 46 percent disapproval.” The same is true for Trump’s controversial travel ban. Internet/automated phone surveys found more support for the travel restrictions than the telephone polls did. In other words, the more anonymous the survey (online) the better Trump and his policies look. This suggests a “social desirability bias” – people unwilling to admit something to another human because it’s not socially acceptable. Others, however, caution that it may be more about quality and samples of voters than the mode used. Either way, this will be an important factor to pay attention to as we go forward. The wording of questions is also critical – especially on something as hot-button as immigration, race and religion.
We can’t ignore data. Nor should we throw out the polls. In fact, the more data we have the better. But we can and should be skeptical. And to appreciate and understand the fundamentals of the Senate/House races beyond the one or two publicly released polls. Also, to best analyze a race, it’s important to put more emphasis on trends and trajectory than on horse race numbers
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to come to Washington determined to “shake up the status quo.” Nor is he the first to try and muscle a partisan agenda through a Congress controlled by his own party. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used one-party control of Washington to push their own polarizing agenda. Notably, both suffered devastating losses in their first midterm election. We’ve got a long way to go before we find out if Trump will suffer the same fate. But, just because he’s been able to defy conventional wisdom in the past, doesn’t mean he’ll be able to defy it forever. This also requires those of us who cover politics to challenge our own assumptions too. What’s trending on Twitter or cable TV isn’t necessarily the thing that’s important to voters. The fundamentals still matter too. The state of the economy is going to be more important to voters than the latest cable-generated outrage.
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