Energized by their hatred of Donald Trump, Democrats are eagerly preparing for the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans see the president’s low approval ratings—and polls that show their party behind—and wonder what they can do to avoid a bloodbath. The downcast, but sober, response: not much.
Modern American politics are polarized and presidential. Devotees of both parties increasingly view the other side as an existential threat to their values, reducing the number of so-called swing voters whose shifts in party allegiance historically have decided elections. The expansion of executive power over decades means that the president, not Congress, now sets the tone of national discussion—and shapes his party’s image. Unless the party openly revolts against its own chief executive, its electoral fate is largely outside of its control.
Consider the fate of moderate Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Thirty-four House Democrats voted against Obamacare in 2009, yet half of them still lost their reelection bids in 2010. Their Republican-leaning districts were out to punish a party they now vociferously opposed, and their own congressmen’s breaking with the party did nothing to alleviate their anger. By 2014, only four of the 34 remained in the House.
It was more of the same for moderate Senate Democrats in 2014. Republicans had not defeated more than two Democratic incumbent senators in an election since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, in which the GOP gained 12 Senate seats. In 2014, Republicans knocked off five Democratic incumbents, including one from Colorado, a state that President Obama had won in 2012. They picked up four other open seats previously held by retiring Democrats, including another in a state—Iowa—that Obama had won just two years earlier.
Trump is an even more polarizing president than Obama. Gallup reports that his average job approval rating in his first year is at least ten points lower than any of his predecessors’. This has led to Democratic victories throughout 2017, in both special elections like the Alabama Senate race and in regularly scheduled off-year races. Even a recent uptick in Trump’s approval has not pushed his rating above 40 percent. Democrats accordingly lead in the generic ballot polls by an average of 7.8 percent— just about the margin that they need to win back the House.
While individual polls differ greatly on the Democrats’ margin—it ranges from a high of 14 points to a low of five—they largely agree on the correlation between opinions on Trump and partisan proclivities. The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll, for example, gives Democrats a 12-point lead in the generic ballot. It shows Trump backers supporting Republicans by a 90-6 margin and his opponents backing the Democrat by an 88-6 margin. The most recent CNN poll gives Democrats only a five-point lead but has nearly identical numbers among Trump backers and opponents as the ABC poll (88-7 GOP among Trump backers, 85-10 Democrat among Trump opponents). Republicans will gain many more votes if they can improve Trump’s numbers than they will by trying to improve their paltry share among Trump opponents.
Congressional Republicans’ effort to run a separate party-branding effort will be complicated by the very different incentives facing their House and Senate candidates. The House GOP majority rests on 23 Republican-held seats in congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. These seats are either in heavily Hispanic areas of Texas or South Florida or well-educated and affluent suburbs of large cities. The voters that GOP candidates need to hold on to these seats are those who voted for Romney in 2012 and Clinton in 2016. Data from the Voter Study Group show that Romney-Clinton voters tend to be more culturally moderate, pro-immigration, and pro-trade than Trump voters. A House-centric strategy, therefore, would downplay those issues and emphasize policy areas that dominated prior campaigns—taxes and defense, for example.
The playing field is different for Senate GOP candidates, who have an historic opportunity to gain seats from Democrats in states that Trump won with landslide margins. Five Democratic Senate seats are up for reelection in states—Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, and Indiana—that Trump carried by margins ranging from 19 to 41 points. Four other Democratic seats are at stake in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, states that Trump won narrowly. Only one Republican up for election—Nevada’s Dean Heller—holds a seat in a state that Clinton carried. Trump support has held up in most of these states: a September poll showed Trump approval above or close to 50 percent in Florida and in all five heavily Trump districts in which the Democrats hold seats. The Senate GOP incentive, therefore, is to motivate Trump backers from all parties to vote. That means stressing jugular issues like building the wall and protecting American jobs.
So far, it looks like Trump is pursuing a Senate-focused party-branding effort. The brief government shutdown was caused by a dispute over immigration and the border wall. Discussions about what to do with the so-called Dreamers will continue throughout the winter. The president has also announced punitive tariffs on some Chinese imports, and more tariff decisions loom. Trade will dominate political discussion in the spring, when the renegotiation of NAFTA is scheduled to conclude. Both issues alienate moderate suburbanites but energize rural and small-town Republicans and Trump-friendly Democrats.
Republicans will need that energy in November. Both 2017 election results and poll data show that Democrats are much likelier to vote than Republicans and Trump Democrats. If the enthusiasm gap holds, Democrats could outperform expectations, holding onto shaky Senate seats that would otherwise be lost with a less dramatic turnout. Reducing or eliminating that enthusiasm gap is crucial for Republican hopes—and that means stoking the flames on contentious issues like immigration and trade that drive passions in both directions.
Improved Republican and Trump-Democrat enthusiasm could wind up helping House Republican candidates, too. Some of those Clinton-GOP seats are very close; enthusiasm equality could help keep a few in hand. This will be even more crucial in a second set of seats—districts won by Trump. Democrats hold twelve such seats, and gaining a few of them could protect the GOP House majority. Republicans also hold 12 seats in districts won by Obama and Trump. Holding these rural, less-educated, and poorer districts will require a different focus than maintaining the Clinton-GOP House seats. A Senate-focused strategy might be better-suited to these areas than a more traditional GOP approach.
Republican hopes in Congress ultimately rest on the president. The party’s best hope lies in coordinating a message in line with what Trump is likely to do anyway—emphasizing the populist issues that helped fuel his victory. It might work, but anything else is likely to be drowned out by Trump’s priorities and send a muddled message to the voters whom the party needs if it is to overcome united Democratic opposition.
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