Halfway There: After a Midterm Loss, How Do Trump’s Re-Election Chances Compare to That of His Predecessors?

It’s been two years since President Trump’s inauguration — and two months since the Democratic Party had its most successful House midterm since Watergate.

Now that all the votes are finally counted, we know that the Democrats did better than we thought on midterm night. Their 40-to-41-seat gain outstripped even the Democratic wave election of 2006, when they picked up only 31. Democrats’ 8.6-percent win in national House votes is the highest for either party in 32 years, and their 9.7-million raw vote win across House races is the largest margin ever for either party. Moreover, this success was in part due to historic turnout: over 118 million Americans voted. At 50.3 percent of eligible voters, the 2018 midterms enjoyed the highest voter turnout in any midterm since 1914 saw 50.4 percent of voters head to the polls over a century ago. Incredibly, that’s a higher turnout than the 1996 presidential election, which had just 49 percent turnout, and it matched 2000’s epic Bush-Gore showdown, which also turned out 50.3 percent of the electorate. The turnout was also significantly closer to the 2016 presidential election‘s 55.7 percent than it was the 2014 midterms’ 36.4 percent. The lesson: President Trump turned out his base, but his base isn’t enough anymore. Some combination of his policies and approach to the presidency turned out considerably more detractors than supporters.

Yet, some context is in order. Thanks to a favorable map (discussed ad nauseum on PPFA), his party actually picked up two seats in the Senate. In other “wave” elections, the Senate usually moves in the same direction as the House, but not in 2018. Meanwhile, just because Democrats had historically high House gains for their own party does not mean they set the modern record. Republicans won 52 House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2006.

Those two midterms are particularly relevant for today’s column. President Clinton took that drubbing in 1994 and President Obama got trounced in 2006, yet both bounced back with rather convincing re-election victories two years later: Clinton won the 1996 Electoral College 379 to 159 (and the popular vote by 8.5 percent) and Obama won 332 to 206 (popular vote by 4) in 2012.

These comebacks from worse House defeats than Trump’s should make us all take seriously the President’s re-election chances.[1] If these two predecessors not only came back from terrible midterms and won re-election but won comfortably, then what’s stopping Trump from at least eking out another term?[2]

A few questions should dominate our analysis of such a question.

  1. What impact will the Mueller investigation have on the second half of Trump’s first term?
  2. Is Trump’s remarkably consistent approval rating a good sign or a bad sign?
  3. What is the economy’s fate for the next two years, and will people even care?

Let’s take a look, one by one.

1. What impact will the Mueller investigation have on the second half of Trump’s first term?

The Mueller-led Special Counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election just passed its 20-month mark, and the media has been full of stories that Mueller “might” or “could” be done “sometime soon.” This questionably possible near-imminence may or may not affect Trump’s presidency in a general or specific way, perhaps or perhaps not with impeachment proceedings.

As speculated on this website, I don’t expect a relative exoneration of Trump would soften extremely negative opinions of him held by Democrats; they will surely spin such an exoneration to fit their preconceived conclusions, likely that Trump is clearly ignorant of what happens around him. Nor would a potential Mueller condemnation of Trump, whether or not the Democratically-controlled House impeaches him, drive away his most ardent supporters who see Fake News and Deep State everywhere; that then chains to him Republican lawmakers afraid of their next election.

However, independents are more easily swayed. Interestingly, their approval of him closely correlates to his overall approval. In Gallup’s last four weekly tracking polls of 2018 (and ever), Republicans always supported him close to 90 percent and Democrats remained in the high single digits, but independents were a pretty accurate barometer of the President’s overall approval rating.

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Independents will hear out the Mueller report, and they will then help determine in what direction Trump’s numbers go. Without knowing where Mueller is going, it’s hard to say what its impact will be. But, since everyone else seems to prematurely speculate, I’ll venture that the report will identify considerable impropriety by those in Trump’s orbit but fail to incriminate the President, a meager meal that will fall short of the expectations set by ravenous liberals. The relative dud will earn the President a bit more support from independents.

2. Is Trump’s remarkably consistent approval rating a good sign or a bad sign?

One would presume the President, if he wants to be re-elected, needs to at least return to the kind of national support he received in 2016, when he won 46.1 percent of the vote and squeaked out victories of less than one percent in Pennsylvania (0.72%), Michigan (0.77%), and Wisconsin (0.23%) to win the Electoral College.[3] The good news for him is that his victory with 46 percent means he doesn’t need to win over a majority of the country to win re-election; indeed, of the last seven presidential elections, the winning candidates has fallen short of 50 percent more often than not.[4]

That bad news, however, is that Trump, since his initial, post-inauguration decline, has never achieved that 46 percent threshold. Here’s a look at the rolling Real Clear Politics average of his approval polls, and I’ve highlighted his high-water mark:

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Topping out at 44.7 percent, he has yet to show he can build a 46 percent coalition, to say nothing of something safer in the high 40s. And that was before the effects of the government shutdown on his approval seen at the tail end of the graph.

Still, even with the shutdown, it’s also been a year since his approval dipped under 40. Of the last 14 polls — all taken during the shutdown — he is below 40 in only three of them (37, 37, and 39). The continued irony of his popularity is that modern American history’s most volatile presidency has experienced its least volatile approval numbers. His supporters rarely waver. Just like his detractors whine that pro-Trump conservatives swallow all his lies and Rush/Fox propaganda, the right just as vehemently claims that Democrats are lemmings following the mainstream media. Considering his administration to this point, it’s hard to imagine the scenario where Trump loses his 40 percent floor, especially when he’s so clearly prioritized the desires of his base and seems terrified of losing it.[5]

That leaves us with Question #2: though it seems like never rising about 45 percent hurts him, the fact that he can’t lose 40 percent gives him a decent enough starting point if he can just go a few weeks without behaving like, well, Donald Trump.

Still, to answer the question point blank: I’d say “bad sign.” In a PBS/NPR/Marist survey last week, 57 percent of respondents said they would “definitely” vote against Trump in 2020. If remotely accurate, that severely limits his ability to approach his 2016 support, even if he never alienates his 40 percent.

3. What is the economy’s fate for the next two years, and will people even care?

Trump frequently selects economic indicators that suggest he has given us the greatest economy in a half century. Let’s put aside the extent to which that is true and, if it is true, to what extent he’s responsible. Let’s instead grant his premise and ask the follow-up question: then why did his party lose 40 seats in the House? And why is he stuck under 45 percent approval?

His supporters will blame the Fake News media for spreading lies about him. Let’s again ignore the accuracy of that and instead grant the premise. If the Fake News media is lying about him and convincing a majority of the country about their lies, what makes us think either will change between now and November 2020?

These two factors should scare President Trump. If a supposedly red-hot economy hasn’t been enough to cut through the media and make him popular, then what effects will a cooling economy have on his approval? Will his numbers in the low 40s be remembered as the good old days? Trump will of course blame the new Democratic House for this potentially sagging economy, but surely the media will again take their side over his.

I suppose that leads to a final, unexpected question.

3a. If the economy doesn’t work, what will it take to grow his approval?

Far be it for an amateur pundit like me to advise our chief executive when he has plenty of sycophants to do that for him, but I would say step one is to stop thinking everything is going well. He called the midterms “very close to a complete victory.” That’s insane. However, as has become the norm, he believes — or at least thinks it’s important other people believe — that he’s extremely popular. The problem is that this egotism produces complacency. If one perceives oneself as already perfect, there is no motivation to learn, change, or grow in the job, and he’ll continue to only think of the base rather than how to win a second term and continue leading the nation.

In contrast, after his 2010 midterm drubbing, President Obama admitted he took a “shellacking,” that he felt “humbled,” and he needed “to do a better job.” Sixteen years earlier, Clinton’s big 1994 midterm defeat convinced him to go find common ground with Republicans, and he indeed moved to a more centrist administration. In both cases, admitting the sobering realities of the moment — which some might argue is not President Trump’s strong suit — convinced these predecessors that they needed to change to survive politically and accomplish more of their respective agendas.

I’m sure his supporters admire the President’s conviction, but these same supporters should prefer a politically viable leader who can build a coalition to achieve his agenda and win re-election rather than a lame duck who prefers to go down with the ship, his 40 percent clinging to the stern. Since he has shown no ability to moderate his tone, never mind his politics, his chances for re-election rank below Clinton and Obama after their first two years.


FOOTNOTES

[1]One might think an even more appropriate historical analogy than Clinton and Obama would be the last Republican President, George W. Bush. However, in Bush’s first midterm — 2002 — Republicans added eight House seats and a Senate seat, much in thanks to Bush’s high approval rating after a post-9/11 spike to about 90 percent. When considering President Trump’s re-election chances, President Bush’s first midterm just doesn’t fit as a useful comparison.

[2]It’s worth noting I’ve hit on this idea on previous occasions. Historical parallels also exist with Nixon and Reagan, each of whom faced adversity and unpopularity early in their first terms only to win 49 states in re-election. If they can win 49 states, Trump can win 30 again.

[3]He also won Florida’s big haul of 29 electoral votes by just 1.2 percent, though flipping it would not have been necessary had Clinton won the three aforementioned states. Still, Trump being about one percent less popular in 2020 than he was in 2016 could flip Florida along with the other three, a total swing of 75 electoral votes that would give the Democrat over 300 electoral votes.

[4]The exceptions were George W. Bush in 2004 with 50.73 percent of the vote, and both Obama elections (52.93 and 51.06).

[5]My guess — and you pay me to make guesses — is that he prefers to lose a close election (though of course he’d claim a moral victory after everyone worked against him for four years) and return to his old life. If he risks alienating his base in a perhaps futile attempt to win the center and re-election, he might ultimately face an embarrassing wipe out in 2020, sullying his reputation afterwards. I also suspect, being the opportunistic capitalist that he is, that he’s aiming to monetize his presidential stint, so he’ll want that loyal base around to buy books and/or memorabilia and/or access to his new TV network.

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