The last two major generic polls came in Monday, with CNN showing a 13-point lead (larger than virtually all other recent surveys) and George Washington University poll showing an 8-point lead for the same group of people surveyed twice before. Interestingly, GWU points to higher levels of engagement (e.g., signing a petition, making a donation, attending an event) for Democrats than for Republicans.
The polls have similar results to one important question: Does the voter approve or disapprove of President Trump’s performance? Less than a third strongly approve (GWU 28 percent/CNN 30 percent), a small number somewhat approve (15/9) or somewhat disapprove (6/10) but a large plurality (47/45) strongly disapprove. Trump’s dedicated followers represent a much smaller percentage of the electorate than his most ardent critics, which does raise a dilemma for Republicans. Trump, whom a strong plurality intensely dislikes, has told voters the midterms are all about him.
Trump [on Monday] framed the vote as a referendum on his presidency so far, pointing to several accomplishments but saying “it’s all fragile.”
“In a certain way, I am on the ballot,” Trump said in a phone call with supporters. “Whether we consider it or not, the press is very much considering it a referendum on me and us as a movement.”
For once, Democrats are happy to agree. (“At a Northern Virginia campaign rally, former president Barack Obama said the election will define the soul of America, as other Democrats accused Trump of fearmongering.”) What’s more, Democrats such as Obama have elevated the midterms to a referendum not on some Trump policies but on what kind of country he wants. (“The character of this country is on the ballot. The politics we expect is on the ballot. How we conduct ourselves in public life is on the ballot”). Making this about something greater than one issue, about the soul of America, gives voters some uplift at the end of a bitter campaign when voters want to feel good about their vote. Democrats are saying you can feel good — make that, noble — by casting a pro-democracy, pro-civility vote.
Moreover, Trump is making quite clear what issue he thinks is critical. Trump not only nationalized the midterms, depriving candidates of the ability to make individualized appeals and focus on local interests; he did it on an issue — immigration — about which a large percentage of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling. (CNN shows only 37 percent approve, 59 percent disapprove.) Rather than close on the economy, which most Americans consider a strong suit, he goes with immigration. Go figure. (One theory is that he is obsessed with pleasing his hardcore base which lives for his xenophobic rants; another is that it’s the only issue on which he thinks he can pick up red states for the Senate, even if it adds to House losses elsewhere.)
In sum, Trump is reminding the plurality of the country why it disapproves so strongly and is reminding the somewhat approve/somewhat disapprove segments of the electorate why it might be a really good idea to have a check on Trump. (Are we really going to send thousands of troops and fire into a crowd?). Ironically, during the closing days of the 2016 election, Trump was remarkably contained and on message. Now, with his back to the wall, he’s all fire and brimstone.
So yes, if Democrats rack up big wins, they can thank very good candidates, generous donors (who’ve given record amounts in a midterm election) and the party’s stars such as Obama, former vice president Joe Biden and Oprah Winfrey — but most all Trump. He made it all about him so Democrats didn’t have to.