One bad thing about writing is that some of what you write doesn’t age well. My post on election night said that Democrats won the House, but Trump won the election. I need to walk that back. As the days have gone by, the election results have gotten worse for Republicans, and the analysis of what went wrong includes many bad omens for the GOP in 2020.
In private discussions, many of the very best Republican campaign managers and consultants aren’t shy about the problems that Republican candidates faced, and they aren’t shy about telling you that the source of many of the problems was President Trump. One campaign veteran bluntly explained it this way: “Why did we have 43 retirements this year? Trump. Why did Democrats raise so much money? Trump. Why doesn’t anyone with a college degree want to vote for us? Trump.”
Party insiders were hoping that no more than 12 to 15 House Republicans would call it quits in 2018 — just shy of the number who retired in 2014, during the last midterm cycle. But because so many Republicans didn’t like the president’s brand of politics, didn’t want to gear up and fight a Trump loyalist in a primary or didn’t want to have to defend Trump in the midterm election, the GOP was left with a record number of House retirements.
The Democrats’ fundraising in 2018 — particularly among small donors — was also stunningly effective. Their ActBlue platform succeeded beyond anyone’s forecast, raking in a record haul of more than $1 billion. That’s not to say Republicans didn’t raise a lot of money — just that the Democrats raised a lot more. And it wasn’t just small donors who made a difference for Democrats. Pros in the Republican campaigns dismiss big-dollar Democratic donations by the likes of Tom Steyer as actually helpful to the Republican cause, but they acknowledge that Michael Bloomberg’s last-minute money bombs were strategically placed and made a meaningful difference in several races.
Then there is the matter of college graduates leaving the GOP. Their degrees weren’t the problem per se; rather it was that their general affluence made them less worried about the future than people who live paycheck-to-paycheck. Suburban white-collar workers don’t fear Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the way blue-collar workers do. And while we’re at it, many college graduates oppose Trump not necessarily because they disagree with his policies but because they are embarrassed by how he conducts himself. And it appears many of these voters associate the negatives of Trump with the Republican Party. Under current circumstances, a lot of traditional Republican suburban voters are comfortable voting for Democrats.
With that said, Trump isn’t to blame for all the losses, and many of the candidates he campaigned for certainly would not have won without him. But that’s not to say he doesn’t bring real problems to a lot of traditional GOP areas. And if the Democrats don’t act crazy for the next two years, many traditional Republican voters may feel more confident in supporting Democrats in 2020.
Interestingly, a couple pollsters told me that Trump’s high-water mark during 2018 was around the time of the North Korea summit. They made the point that something positive happened, that Trump was rightfully credited for affirmatively achieving something. But they also said his numbers cratered when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki a month later, and that they never fully recovered.
While midterms are not necessarily a good predictor of what will happen in the general election, Republicans would be wise to reflect on the fact that Democrats just won the House by the largest midterm margin ever. Trump says Republicans were defeated because he was not on the ballot, but a midterm is always to some extent a referendum on the president. A general election is more of a choice between this person versus that person, and that may serve Trump well in 2020. But what happened in November 2018 should give every Republican pause.
In American politics what is supposed to happen tends to happen, and voters almost always give a party more than one consecutive term in the White House. Only once since World War II has a political party — irrespective of the candidate running for office — won just one term. And that was in 1980 when Jimmy Carter had all the symptoms of a losing incumbent. Carter had a strong primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy, an economic recession and an embarrassing foreign policy debacle in the Iranian hostage crisis. It doesn’t look like Trump will have similar problems, but his negatives and the energy that he provides to the Democrats could alter some of the laws of political physics.