This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 14, 2017
Many congressional Republicans who had town meetings over the last week or two have gotten an earful from constituents upset over the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act or President Trump’s immigration enforcement or both. Some of these highly unpleasant scenes don’t look too different from what congressional Democrats encountered back in 2009 and 2013, rocky years that preceded calamitous midterm elections, when they lost their House majority in the former and their Senate majority in the latter. As a group, politicians want to be loved and put on a pedestal. Getting booed, screamed at, and picketed, particularly by the ordinary middle-class people who put them in office, is more than a little unnerving.
We know that midterm elections generally don’t go well for the party holding the White House. According to the indispensable 2017 Vital Statistics on Congress, by Thomas Mann, Norman Ornstein, Michael Malbin, and Molly Reynolds, the president’s party has lost House seats in 35 out of 38 midterms (92 percent) since the end of the Civil War, and has lost Senate seats in 20 out of 25 elections (80 percent) since the 17th Amendment was enacted in 1914 instituting the direct election of senators. In general, turnout is lower in the off years, and angry and alienated voters show up in greater numbers than those who are satisfied with the way things are going.
No one can predict the mood of voters next year, but right now they’re mighty unhappy with Trump. In the Gallup Organization’s nightly tracking polls through Sunday night, Feb. 12, just 40 percent of adults nationwide approved of the job the president is doing and 54 percent disapproved (negative 14 points)—a level lower at this point in a presidency than any recorded since the modern era of polling began back in the 1950s. Other major polls show comparable results: CBS News has Trump with 40 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval (-8); CNN pegged him at 44 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval (-9); Quinnipiac showed 42 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval (-9). The RealClearPolitics average of a much broader swath of polls put the president’s approval rating at 44.3 percent and his disapproval number at 49.8 percent (-5.5).
Like Barack Obama, Trump has a very personal constituency. Obama’s voters turned out in droves to elect him in 2008, but many of them didn’t show up for Democratic candidates in the 2010 midterm elections. They came out again to reelect him in 2012, but again stayed home in the 2014 midterms. Obviously Hillary Clinton failed to energize them enough to come out this past November. It would not be hard to imagine Trump’s loyal supporters not being sufficiently inspired to come out for Republicans in next year’s midterms even if they again turn out for Trump in 2020.
So midterm-election history and current presidential job-approval ratings suggest a tough road for the GOP, but other facts point in the opposite direction. Midterms attract older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican voters. Democrats have a big edge with younger and minority voters, who tend to come out in presidential elections but much less so in midterm years.
Another reason why 2018 might not turn out badly for Republicans is their structural advantage. In the House, there are few competitive districts and fewer districts in play, partly the result of partisan gerrymandering but also the product of population patterns. Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in urban areas, inner suburbs, and college towns, while Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country.
Because senators serve six-year terms, analysts always look back at what happened six and 12 years before. When a party has a great Senate year, it tends to have more seats at risk—to have greater exposure, as political analysts say. Democrats had a fantastic Senate election in 2006, during President George W. Bush’s second term, gaining a net of six seats. When Obama was reelected in 2012, Democrats added another two seats. This means that in 2018, Democrats are overexposed, defending 25 seats to only nine for Republicans (it was eight, but now Jeff Sessions’s replacement, Luther Strange, has to run for a full term next year in Alabama). Democrats have five Senate seats up in states that Trump won by double digits and five more in states that he won by single digits. Only one Republican is up in a state won by Clinton.
In short, Republicans will be facing some political headwinds but are not overly exposed in terms of seats. That could mean some individual Republicans might have problems but that very large losses are unlikely. It doesn’t mean that a lot of Republicans aren’t worried. In politics, when your party loses a lot of seats, it’s a disaster. But when you lose your own seat, it’s a catastrophe.
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