After last week’s election, Democrats and liberals are rightly dispirited about their short-term political prospects. Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress, most state legislatures and governorships, and will soon have the opportunity to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice, setting the body’s course for a generation.
However, Democrats have some reasons for hope. Chief among these, ironically enough, is President Donald Trump himself.
In polarized times, the president’s brand has become inextricably linked to his party’s brand. When the president is popular, his party benefits. But in an era where split-ticket voting is uncommon, even at the local level, an unpopular president can have disastrous effects for his party.
If Trump stumbles, Democrats may benefit.
This logic is familiar to many Democrats. Just a decade ago, they took control of both houses of Congress. Two years later, in 2008, they increased their majorities and took the presidency, while simultaneously making big gains in state legislatures. While these gains may be attributed in part to messaging and organizing, Democrats also benefited from an increasingly unpopular President George W. Bush. Before the 2006 midterm election, Bush’s approval rating was at 37 percent. By the end of his presidency, his approval rating had dropped to an anemic 28 percent.
Similarly, after a brief honeymoon, President Obama lost popularity after the battle over and passage of the Affordable Care Act. In part as a result, Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010.
Political scientists call the mechanism by which this works “macropartisanship,” which means distribution of voters of one party or another within the national electorate. Party identification is generally stable. But when presidents are popular and doing well, people become more likely to identify with his (or, someday, her) party — and to dis-identify when he or she becomes unpopular.
For most people, partisanship — which party they identify with — determines whom they vote for in a general election. When the president’s party loses support, it suffers — as happened in 2006, 2008 and 2010. In the figure above, you see the share of respondents who identified with the Democratic Party, as a percentage of everyone who said they identified with either the Republicans or Democrats. The data are from Gallup and CBS-New York Times polls during the Bush and Obama years.
You can see that when Bush was less popular before the 2006 midterm election, many more voters self-identified as Democrats. The reverse happened when President Obama’s popularity dipped before the 2010 midterms, and fewer voters identified as Democrats. It’s no coincidence that control of Congress changed hands in both these years.
The Republicans did well in 2002, gaining seats in the House and taking back control of a divided Senate. Many expected the Democrats to do well that year, since voters often punish the incumbent party in a midterm year. But Bush’s personal popularity rose after 9/11.
Setting aside 2002, there are a variety of explanations for why the president’s party historically suffers midterm losses. One theory has it that the American people are just more amenable to divided government and uncomfortable having a single party controlling Congress and the presidency. Another is that the president invariably becomes less popular after being elected because he’s plunged into the messiness of building legislative coalitions, making deals and incurring the public’s skepticism toward major policy changes.
It is difficult to tell the future of a Trump administration. He will be unlike any president the United States has seen before. We do know, however, that Trump will be coming into office with the lowest favorability ratings of any newly elected president in modern history. According to Gallup, 64 percent of voters hold an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump. By comparison, President Obama came into office with 65 percent favorability rating among voters, the inverse of Trump’s lack of popularity.
Some aspects of Trump’s legislative agenda — which includes apparently bipartisan agenda items such as infrastructure spending and unorthodox items such as renegotiating trade deals and building a border wall — will surely be resisted by his own party, leading to divisions despite Republican control of both houses of Congress.
The president-elect and the congressional GOP might agree on repealing the Affordable Care Act. But 20 million people stand to lose health insurance if the act is repealed; doing so could be politically costly.
And aside from policy considerations, Trump’s personal style may continue to be controversial.
No matter who won Tuesday night, the victor was bound to face enormous challenges. The country is politically divided. The results suggest a general dissatisfaction with political elites and institutions.
Don’t be surprised, however, if Trump falls victim to this dissatisfaction himself, and if the Democrats reap the political rewards down the line.
Neil Visalvanich is a lecturer (assistant professor) at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, United Kingdom. Find him on Twitter at @NeilBigBusiness.