Let’s say that I put you on a desert island the day after the 2016 elections (don’t worry, it would be one with wonderful amenities, just no contact with the outside world). Then, let’s say that the first piece of 2018 news I gave you was the latest polling from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (I know, it’s lame, but work with me here, I’m trying to make a point). You would take one look at it and think that absolutely nothing of significance happened between November 2016 and October 2018.
Opinions about the president today basically mirror the vote for the president in 2016. The coalition that brought Trump to the White House, (white, non-college, overwhelmingly male), continue to give him high marks. Meanwhile, those that voted against him in 2016 - women, college-educated white voters and voters of color - dislike him as much today as they did back then.
Even more remarkable is how closely currently Trump’s job approval ratings track the 2016 vote.
For example, according to the Pew 2016 Validated Voter Study, Trump carried men by 52 percent and took 39 percent among women. Today, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds Trump’s approval rating among men at 56 percent and at 38 percent among women. Basically, no change from election night 2016.
Here's another example. In 2016, white voters supported Trump 54 percent to 39 percent for Clinton. Today, white voters give Trump a 54 percent job approval rating. Back in 2016, college educated white voters gave Trump 38 percent of the vote, while white voters without a college degree supported Trump with 64 percent of the vote. Today, Trump’s approval rating among white college voters is 38 percent and among white, non-college voters is 65 percent.
Moreover, opinions of the president are driving the choice for Congress. For example, Trump’s approval rating among likely voters is underwater by 7 points (45 percent to 52 percent), while Republicans are running behind Democrats on the generic ballot by 9 points.
Voters are also as emotionally raw and wary today as they were back in the fall of 2016. I witnessed this first hand while tagging along with the canvassers for Americans For Prosperity this past Saturday in Chesterfield County, the heart of Virginia’s 7th district, where Rep. Dave Brat is in a tight race against Democrat Abigail Spanberger. Once a GOP-stronghold, Chesterfield County narrowly supported Democrat Ralph Northam in the 2017 gubernatorial contest. And, driving through the area there were about as many lawn signs for her as there were for him.
The volunteers were representing the 501 (c)(4) arm of the Koch-backed organization. They weren’t advocating for Brat, who the AFP Action SuperPAC has endorsed. They were knocking on the doors of known AFP supporters and encouraging them to come out to vote.
As we tromped around newly built golf course communities in the prosperous area, I was struck by how leery and circumspect voters were by our presence at their doorstep. They were waiting for the volunteer canvasser to make a pitch about a candidate. When he didn’t, they didn’t offer any indication of who they were interested in voting for — or how they felt about the president. It’s not because they weren’t interested in voting. It’s that they seemed wary of admitting their preference. Admitting support or opposition to this president opens the door to uncomfortable conversations that many Americans just don’t want to have with strangers — let alone their close friends and family.
So, what does it mean for 2018? Trump is gambling that he can run the 2016 playbook and come up with similar results. He’s got the same rallies with the same music and the same themes (Democrats are weak on the border, soft on crime and will raise your taxes). But, this year, of course, the battleground for House control is centered in the places where Trump remains the most toxic - highly educated suburban America. And, most important, his ideal foil, Hillary Clinton, isn’t on the ballot in 2018. This is a referendum on Trump, not a choice between he and Clinton. Running up in the score in small town, rural America doesn’t win you votes in suburban Detroit, or Chicago, or Denver. Where he does help is in places like Minnesota’s 8th district in the Iron Range, or the downstate Illinois’ 12th district. Democrats and Republicans are also seeing tightening in places where Democrats are favored to flip districts carried by Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, such as ME-02, IA-01, and MN-02.
And, of course, a re-run of 2016 - especially if GOP enthusiasm matches that of Democrats - is super helpful to Republicans in the Missouri and Indiana Senate races. Even Democrats admit that it’d be easier to win these races if Trump’s job approval were lower.
President Trump operates in one gear. He doesn’t moderate or hesitate. He’s not interested in growing his base, only in motivating the base he already has. Thus far, that style has won him the GOP nomination and the White House. Neither were ‘supposed’ to happen. If Republicans are successful this fall, it will only help to reinforce the belief that the “Let Trump be Trump” strategy is the only way to go. Meanwhile, Democrats will be forced into their own reckoning that will exacerbate many of the tensions within the party that reared up post-2016, but have been put to rest during their 2018 campaigns.
If the strategy flops, however, Republicans will have to figure out where they go next. While the president himself isn’t going to alter his strategy (he will blame a bad election night outcome on everyone and everything but himself), what will GOPers in Congress do? If Republicans lose the House, it will be because the very people most vulnerable to the “Trump be Trump” style were defeated. Left in Congress will be the very Republicans who are most committed to the Trump message and style. It’s hard to see why they would be willing to re-direct or reign in a president who remains deeply popular in their districts.
About the only thing that does look certain at this point, however, is that America on November 7, 2018 will look as divided and polarized as it did on November 9, 2016.