There are a lot of factors that will determine the outcome of the battle for the House and Senate, with both chambers virtually evenly divided. Midterm elections are referenda on the incumbent president and that president’s party, including his legislative agenda, the state of the economy, and, in this case, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Is President Biden seen as committing the kind of overreach that cost the last four presidents control of both the Senate and the House during their tenures? Or will he be seen as stepping up to the plate and hitting a grand slam?
Besides Biden’s approval levels, other factors that will influence the outcome include reapportionment and redistricting—both expected to hurt Democrats—along with the number of retirements and quality of candidate recruitment in competitive races. With two groups of voters—those who loved Donald Trump and those who loathed him—driving record-high voter turnout in the last midterm and presidential elections, which group and thus which party will suffer the greater drop-off in 2022?
While a number of factors can and will work against Democrats, the question of whether the Republican Party will be divided or unified—and whether their primary voters nominate electable candidates—is also critical. Wednesday’s ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney from her position as chair of the House Republican Conference underscores the intensity of the division within the party.
After the Cheney business this week, there are potential dark clouds on the GOP horizon: How intense will the division be? Will there be a civil war in the Republican Party? And will GOP primary voters repeat history after 2010 and 2012, when a slew of tea-party Republicans won primaries only to lose general elections that the GOP would probably have otherwise held, including three Senate seats?
A lot of the answers will come down to where Trump stands in the Republican Party in November of next year. Hart Research’s Jeff Horwitt shared with me 15 months of previously unreleased data from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that his firm conducts alongside GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies for the two news organizations. (The April poll was affiliated with NBC only.)
The data shows that Republicans who have been seeing themselves as Trump loyalists have not turned against the former President, but their enthusiasm for him has waned. Those who thought of themselves as more “party people” than “Trump people” have not turned against the former president so much as shifted from positive to neutral.
Since Trump took office in January 2017, the NBC/WSJ poll has periodically asked Republicans, “Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?” During his four years in office, the percentage siding with Trump over the party ranged from as low as 43 percent to as high as 54 percent immediately before the last election. It landed at 46 percent when he left office, equal to the share of respondents who said they were more loyal to the party. The party-loyalty group ranged from as low as 35 percent to as high as 47 percent; it was 38 percent going into the election.
Focusing on six polls asking this question conducted since January 2020, the percentage of Trump-loyalist Republicans declined slightly, and those who gave him a “very positive” personal rating dropped from consistently in the 83-to-94 percent range down to 75 percent in the April poll. Trump loyalists with a “somewhat positive” view of Trump increased from 8 percent in January 2020 to 19 percent last month. Those with “neutral” feelings increased from 1 to 5 percent; those with negative feelings remained at 1 percent or less.
Conversely, not only did the share of Republicans who said they are more loyal to the party than to Trump increase from 40 percent in January 2020 and 38 percent at the time of the election to now 50 percent, but their views of the former president have cooled as well. The very-positives dropped from 49 percent in January 2020 and 50 percent at the time of the election to 31 percent now; the somewhat-positives increased from 31 percent in January 2020 and 26 percent at election time to 33 percent.
In this case, it does not seem that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Rather, it is more out of sight, out of mind. Trump’s base is not turning against him but they are losing their enthusiasm for him, while the Republicans who were more party types have moved not against him as much as from having generally positive views toward him to more neutral feelings.
Of course, what’s most important is whether this trend continues—whether his base continues to decline in intensity—and that is unknowable. It would be a bit too strong to say that this midterm election is Republicans’ to lose, but there clearly is a way they could lose it. The last week illustrates that nicely.