Democrats have now officially kicked off voting in the race to face President Trump. Meanwhile, the president is emerging from a painful, divisive impeachment process. Yet as they spend the rest of this week unpacking the Iowa caucus results and shifting their attention to New Hampshire, it's the Democrats who seem to have more reasons to be nervous.
A flood of national polls demonstrates that any Democrat who thought that impeachment could make Trump easier to beat should be disappointed. Trump’s job-approval ratings are within the same trading range that they have been since he took office, albeit on the higher end of the range.
The latest major national survey is the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released this past weekend. It shows his approval rating at 46 percent, well within his historical range in the NBC/WSJ poll of 38 to 47 percent. His disapproval sat at 51 percent, again within the disapproval range that we've seen from a low of 49 percent to a high of 58 percent. The most recent Fox News poll, released last week, pegged Trump’s approval rating at 45 percent, inside his range of 38 to 48 percent for approval. His disapproval was 54 percent, within a historical range of 47 to 57 percent. Similarly, the ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Trump with 44 percent approval, on the high end of his historical 36 to 44 percent range. His 51 percent disapproval was his lowest yet and far down from his high of 60 percent.
Impeachment pretty clearly has not hurt him. The voters who dislike Trump today are pretty much the same ones who disliked him from his earliest weeks in office; those who approve of his handling of the job are basically the same people who did so early on as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he definitely wins or definitely loses reelection; it just means that there aren’t many malleable voters whose minds are open enough on him to change much, one way or the other.
Now that the impeachment saga is drawing to a close, will Democrats now focus their attention on actually trying to defeat him—or will they find something else to distract them?
That raises an interesting question: How does the first president in the history of polling never to have a majority approve of his performance in a major national poll win reelection? Though the two elected incumbents who lost reelection over the past 75 years, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, had job-approval ratings that dipped lower than Trump’s are today, they also ascended higher than Trump's for large stretches of time.
Having taken a relatively cheap shot at Democrats and other Trump critics on the benefits of impeachment, let’s go for one aimed at Trump. Since early in his administration, I've wondered: If Trump was trying his best to lose reelection, what would he have done or be doing differently than he has? A president who loses the popular vote by more than 2 percentage points and almost 3 million votes normally would be trying to win over at least some of the voters who cast ballots against him last time. Not Trump.
But more recently, I've come to suspect there's a method to this madness. He's taking a page from part of Karl Rove’s plan for President George W. Bush in 2004, when he was seeking reelection and had a formidable challenge winning over swing voters; that campaign focused primarily, though certainly not exclusively, on trying to grow the base. It looked for people who looked, sounded, acted, and thought like the people who voted for Bush in 2000 but were not registered to vote, or were registered but didn’t vote four years earlier. It is clear now that this is exactly the strategy the Trump campaign is pursuing. It's perhaps borne more of necessity than choice.