Tuesday, August 15, 2017

How Trump might help Dems take the U. S. House in 2018 (or not)

FiveThirtyEight’s Significant Digits email has this woo-hoo item.

11 points
Generally speaking when the president is at an approval rating of 38 percent we’d expect (historically) the president’s party to lose 11 points or so off its House margin of victory. If the midterms held today in the current congressional playing field, the GOP would lose the national House vote by 10 points. [FiveThirtyEight]

Of course, there’s lots of time between now and 11/2018 and lots of ways for those 11 points to fade away. But let’s look at the analysis that is the basis for FiveThirtyEight’s story, The Normal Rules Of Politics Still Apply To Trump — And To Republicans In Congress.

One of the big questions heading into the 2018 midterm elections — maybe the biggest — is how President Trump’s unpopularity will affect Republican fortunes. Normally, a president with historically low approval ratings would be a disaster for his party in Senate and House races in a midterm year.

But should we really be presuming that what “normally” happens will happen again? For one, Trump won the White House despite having record low favorable ratings. And it’s possible, as CNBC’s John Harwood pointed out, that partisan allegiances may be so baked in nowadays that Democrats won’t be able to attract Republican voters, however much they’ve soured on Trump. Maybe partisan polarization has grown too strong.

Some commentators have taken this argument to extremes. Fox News host Eric Bolling last month effectively argued that Trump is immune from the normal rules of politics. “Just look at those crowds,” he said, referring to a recent Trump rally in Ohio. “Watch the people, not the polls.”

Unpopular presidents swing congressional races
Unpopular presidents swing congressional races

The available evidence, however, suggests many of the old rules do still apply. Caution, like what Harwood and political analyst Scott Rasmussen have advised, is more than warranted, especially given Trump’s history of surprising analysts and pundits. Partisan polarization has increased, and there is plenty of time for Trump’s approval rating to improve. But caution is one thing; ignoring history and evidence, as pundits like Bolling want us to do, is another. And the idea that “the normal rules of politics don’t apply to Trump” strikes me as the latter — at least according to the data before us. Early signs suggest that Trump’s low approval rating is having exactly the negative effect on down-ballot Republicans that history would predict.

Midterm elections are often thought of as referendums on the sitting president. When there’s been an unpopular Democrat in the White House, voters have swung toward Republicans in congressional races. With a struggling Republican president, voters swing Democratic. You can see this by looking at the effect a president’s approval rating has on the national House vote. Specifically, we can look at how much the national House margin would be expected to shift from the previous presidential election based upon the president’s approval rating right before the midterm election. [See accompanying graphic.]

It’s far from perfect, but in midterm elections since 1946, there’s a clear relationship between the president’s approval rating and the swing in the House vote.

Trump’s current approval rating is 38 percent.1 Historically, we would expect a president that unpopular to cause his party to lose around 11 points off its previous House margin. Republicans won the national House vote by 1 percentage point in 2016, so this suggests they would lose it by 10 points if the midterm elections were held today.

Obviously, the 2018 midterm isn’t being held today. Trump’s approval could rise or fall over the next year. But we do have some measures of the current political environment we can use to see if the normal relationship between a president’s popularity and voter preferences is holding.

First up: the generic congressional ballot, a common poll question that asks respondents whether they will vote for the Democrat or Republican in their congressional district. Democrats right now hold a 46 percent to 37 percent lead, according to the FiveThirtyEight aggregate. That’s a bigger lead than Democrats had at any point in 2016 cycle, and it’s in line with the margin necessary for Democrats to take back the House.

[Second,] OK, I can already feel the “FAKE POLLS!” tweets coming. But it’s not just in polling where we see the negative effect of Trump’s unpopularity on Republicans. You can also see it in the special elections held so far this year — actual voters actually voting.

There have been 30 special state legislature and U.S. congressional elections3 since Trump was sworn-in as president. Democrats, as a group, have been outperforming the partisan lean in these districts — tending to come close in ruby red districts, winning swing districts and romping in light blue districts. More specifically, Democratic candidates have done about 16 percentage points better, on average, than you’d expect in a national environment in which no party held the advantage.

So the generic ballot and the special elections held so far both suggest Trump’s low approval ratings are having a normal effect on down-ballot races. The question going forward is whether Trump can improve his approval ratings or whether congressional Republicans can distance themselves from the Trump brand. If either occurs, then Republicans stand a good chance of holding onto their majority in the House. If neither happens and Republicans lose the House, Trump will get a big portion of the blame.

Locally, we have some vulnerable Republican candidates for national office. CD2 Rep. Martha McSally is one. I have this mental image of a cartoon. McSally is jumping out of a sinking ship (USS Trump) clutching the boat anchor (her voting record).

Counterpoint

For every reaction, there is a …

Dan Balz at the Washington Post adds a cautionary note in Think things will be rosy for Democrats in 2018? Not so fast. Here are some of his observations.

… there are … factors that could frustrate the Democrats, from the state of the economy to obstacles created by structural aspects of a polarized electorate to the peculiar ways in which the president defies or at least confounds some traditional measures of public opinion.

Democrats hope to see a replay of the 2006 midterm, when they took advantage of dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush to regain control of the House. But between 2006 and today, something important happened. The shape of congressional districts changed and changed in the direction of the Republicans.

Part of this was through redistricting and the success of Republicans in the states to draw lines most favorable to them. Part of it has come through the sorting out of the population. Democrats are now heavily clustered in urban areas; Republicans are spread more evenly elsewhere. That makes it more difficult for Democrats to compete in some congressional districts.

Add to that the reality that in a red-blue nation, red areas have become redder and blue areas bluer. Especially in Senate races, that tilts the field toward the Republicans.

One other wild card is the relationship between Trump’s numbers and the GOP’s fate in the fall of 2018. His approval ratings are so low that Republicans should brace for substantial losses, big enough to cost them the House. Also, his current distemper toward his party’s leaders could pose turnout issues next year.

But Trump’s numbers sometimes defy conventional analysis. On Election Day last November, about 6 in 10 voters said they did not think Trump was qualified to be president. Enough of them cast their votes for him to make him president.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, there are the Democrats’ internal problems — the divisions between the left wing of the party and more moderate progressives, and the related challenge of developing a message with broader appeal. Democrats could do well in 2018 with nothing more than an anti-Trump message, but that might be shortsighted.

Democrats can win the popular vote for president by rolling up huge margins in California and New York and big cities elsewhere, as they did in 2016. They can’t win the House and particularly the Senate that way. They need a message that appeals beyond their base, and they need more candidates who can compete effectively in less friendly territory.

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