Marginal improvement in President Trump’s job approval ratings and a shrinking Democratic advantage on the national generic ballot has spooked a lot of Democrats and cheered up a lot of Republicans. What once looked like a huge tsunami that threatened to demolish the GOP in the House (and maybe in the Senate), may now be more of a moderate wave. Yet, a quick round of check-ins with smart political operatives on both sides found that Democrats remained bullish and Republicans pessimistic (though maybe a bit less so than they’ve been previously) about the November elections.
First, let’s look at what has changed, and what hasn’t since last November when folks like me were writing about the potential for a big wave in the 2018 midterms.
When I wrote that column, Trump’s average job approval rating — as measured by fivethirtyeight.com — was 38 percent. Today, he sits at 42 percent — a four-point improvement. Also at that time, Democrats led on the generic ballot 48 percent to 37 percent. Today, fivethirtyeight.com has the generic average at 45 percent to 40 percent. These aren’t HUGE swings. But, to pick up 23 seats in the House, many of them in GOP-leaning districts, Democrats need a solid and steady tailwind.
What hasn’t changed: Democratic over performance in actual elections. In other words, the polls say one thing, but the actual elections have been telling us another thing. Both the Democratic and Republican strategists I reached out to agree that Democrats continue to have an intensity advantage and that Trump’s job approval, while better than it was a couple months ago, is still very weak.
As my colleague, David Wasserman, wisely noted, "Republicans still can't point to hard election data that proves their base has suddenly closed the 'intensity gap' in the last few months." In the eight special elections for House and Senate, Democrats have outperformed their "typical" vote performance by 10 points. Or, as one Democratic pollster said to me (via email): “2 weeks ago we lost a special in AZ by 5 pts and spent nothing. The world has not changed in 2 weeks." (Editorial note: the AZ-08 special election was almost a month ago on April 24th).
Another Democratic strategist pointed to Democrats impressive — and unpredicted — over performance in Virginia’s off-year election calling it "the guidepost in terms of surge votes and Democratic gains in vote share." The Virginia results, not the special elections, this strategist notes, are a better predictor for 2018. Despite the fact that the Virginia elections were six months and about 200 million news cycles ago, this seasoned strategist argues that it remains as relevant today as it did last year. Democrats, this strategist notes, did better with Independents, which "should hold" into this fall. Moreover, this Democratic argues, Democrats, "picked up seats in districts where Trump got less than 50% [in 2016] — That’s where the bulk (not all) of our pickups will occur."
Our next real-live test of the durability of the Democratic intensity gap will be the August 7 special election in the GOP leaning Ohio 12th district. But, there’s another interesting wrinkle in trying to accurately measure the enthusiasm gap: while Trump has consolidated Republicans, they don’t love him as much as those who disapprove of him, hate him.
Trump has higher approval ratings among Republicans than his immediate predecessors did at midterm election time. The most recent Gallup poll finds Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans at 86 percent. That’s five points higher than where Obama was with Democrats going into the 2010 midterm elections. A week before the Republicans’ “thumpin’” in 2006, President George W. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans was just 80 percent.
The always perceptive and insightful Ron Brownstein writes on CNN.com: "Trump has shown clear signs of consolidating more of the usual Republican institutional and electoral base than he had earlier, despite all the norm-breaking excesses of his presidency."
Trump has been able to keep the party together, in large part, by tweeting and talking like a populist/nationalist, while governing like a traditional Republican. For example, the 'anti-establishment' types love to see the president talk tough on China, while the Chamber of Commerce-types are happy to see the administration back away from waging a 'trade war' with the country. A Gallup poll this week found that 67 percent of Americans believe "now is a good time to find a quality job in the U.S"; the highest percentage in 17 years of Gallup polling. Much of the increased optimism, writes Gallup, "is the product of a radical turnaround among Republicans and those who lean Republican." As long as the economy stays strong, the GOP is likely to remain united behind the president.
Yet, even as Trump’s job approval has ticked up, he hasn’t seen a substantial improvement in the "intensity gap." SurveyMonkey has been tracking not just Trump’s job approval, but the intensity of that approval, since his inauguration. What their data has found, writes their pollster Mark Blumenthal is that “Trump’s ratings continue to show a considerable intensity gap, with nearly twice as many now strongly disapproving of his performance (42 percent) as strongly approving (24 percent)."
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has been tracking opinions of presidents with something they call the “Feeling Thermometer.” In looking back at pre-midterm election scores for Clinton in 1994, Bush in 2006 and Obama in 2010, no president has had a ‘very negative’ score as high as President Trump had in April. Yet, his 'very positive' score was no better than or stronger than any of these presidents, either. While Bush and Obama had equal numbers of voters feeling "very positive" and "very negative," Bill Clinton and Trump had a more lopsided score, with significantly more voters having ‘very negative” feelings about them than 'very positive" ones. Even so, Trump’s very negative to very positive gap is larger than Clinton's was. And, in 1994, GOP intensity was cited as a critical factor in flipping the House from Democratic to Republican.
NBC/WSJ: Feeling Thermometer
Negative vs. Very NegativePositive vs. Very Positive
Trump has been underestimated at every turn in his wild ride from golden escalator to the White House. This is why many are questioning whether conventional tools and guides can adequately capture how voters view this unconventional president. Ultimately, I think the most important lesson we should take from 2016 isn’t that we can’t trust the data. Instead, it’s that we shouldn’t cherry pick the data. The movement toward Trump and the GOP on two important metrics — congressional ballot and job approval — are important to factor into our analysis. But, so are actual election results and (different) measures of intensity. Don’t try to make one the MOST accurate predictor of election outcomes.