Why Cohen Won't Move the Needle

Don’t hold your breath in anticipation of big changes up or down in President Trump’s ratings in the polls in the aftermath of Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress this week. Any movement is likely to be relatively small and short-lived.

Like so many other revelations that historically might be political career enders, for this president these bombshells tend to be duds. Simply put, people with the capacity to be outraged by things that Trump has said or done have long since been outraged. Those who really like him and/or approve of his policy positions are immune to these facts, developments, or accusations. The remainder of Americans either aren’t listening or don’t care one way or the other.

If Trump were a stock, you would say he has a very narrow trading range. He gets only modest bumps from good news and equally small dips with the bad. The same thing applies to Trump’s summit meeting in Hanoi with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. That little came out of the meeting won’t change things, though the fact that the president realized that no deal was better than a bad deal is a very good thing.

Part of this lack of volatility is a manifestation of the partisan time we are in and that, for better or worse, people already have formed their opinions of Trump. Polling by ABC News/Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal has consistently shown about three-quarters of Americans either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of Trump; those numbers just don’t fluctuate much. Only about a quarter of Americans have even remotely malleable feelings about him. Among Republicans, Trump’s approval ratings are around 90 percent; among Democrats it tends to run in the mid-to-high single digits. Both sides are simply locked into place. Historically, about 90 percent of Democrats can be expected to vote up and down the ballot for Democrats, and it's the same thing for Republicans. The old bromide about “I vote the person, not the party” is now just big talk among partisans.

Any movement tends to come from independents, but even then, the vast majority of people who claim to be independent will confess, if pushed by pollsters, to lean toward one party or the other. About 80 percent of independents who admit to leaning towards one party can be counted on voting up and down the ballot for that party. Some people just have some deep need to claim to be independents but, functionally speaking, they are partisans. The few who are “pure independents,” usually between 5 and 10 percent of all adults, have no lean in either direction. The dirty little secret about these pure independents is that they don’t have strong feelings about politics, tend not to pay much attention to news and, for that matter, often don’t vote. For many, there is a reason they don’t tilt left or right, Democrat or Republican. They simply don’t think about politics much.

But this is not to say that a week like the president just had is meaningless—that just because his base doesn’t either abandon him or grow larger, and his equally adamant opposition doesn’t diminish or expand much, that nothing happened. For that fifth of the electorate that is not in either his base (about 35 percent of all voters) or his militant opposition (about 45 percent), to the extent that they vote in November 2020, the question is what will be their dominant sentiment at that time.

Some speculate, and Democrats obviously hope, that Trump Fatigue will have fully set in among this relatively small but important group. Meanwhile, others suggest and Republicans fervently hope that the Democratic alternative will be simply be less desirable or even more unacceptable, more polarizing than Trump is. Republicans are already at work in trying to depict the Democratic Party as one devoted to socialism and extremism, outside of the mainstream of American politics. Among most people over 50 or 60 years of age, "socialist" is still a pejorative term. Among many people under that age, it doesn’t necessarily have the same negative connotation.

People who avidly follow all of the allegations against Trump and his associates certainly got some titillating new material from Cohen’s testimony this week, though my thought was we didn’t learn that much. In terms of specifics, my view is that anything the former Trump lawyer says should be taken with just a grain of salt. He is clearly not someone of sterling character and not on a first-name basis with truth, but then again, the fact that he was one of Trump’s closest advisers for a decade doesn’t speak well for the president’s choice of friends and associates.

It is easy for those of us who live inside the Beltway to forget that the people who are glued to every twist and turn in the Mueller investigation and other allegations against the president and his associates are pretty much limited to those avid cable-news watchers. Whether the charges are meritorious, untrue, or grossly exaggerated, this is not something that is top of mind and on the lips of many average people out there. They are more interested in how things impact their daily lives, their jobs, and their families’ well-being.

There is little question that the U.S. economy is slowing down, as Thursday’s initial read on the fourth quarter of 2018 shows gross domestic product growth at 2.6 percent, compared to 3.4 percent in the third quarter. Even assuming that no recession occurs between now and November 2020, just how much the economy has slowed down and who Americans blame for that will be more important than whether or how some porn actress got paid off.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on March 1, 2019