One thing that’s worth keeping in mind about Donald Trump is that his path to the White House was unusually tricky. He was the first winning presidential candidate in the modern era of politics to get less than 50 percent of the total vote in both the primary and the general elections. He won more electoral votes than his opponent, but far fewer actual votes — a nearly 3-million-vote margin for his opponent, by far the worst popular-vote loss for any winning president.
The point is that, while Trump has won far more elections than most people, his strength isn’t exactly electoral politics. Over the course of the primaries, it was clear that his campaign’s ability to organize voters was lacking, costing him victory in the Iowa caucuses and, later, delegates in Colorado. He still won, of course, but it’s not clear that he has a strong ability to ensure an electoral victory or loss.
That’s important Friday morning, the morning of the vote on the wavering Republican health-care bill known as the American Health Care Act, for a perhaps obvious reason. Trump has presumably learned by now that his ability to twist arms or push his will on members of Congress through sheer force of personality is limited. Earlier this week, he offered a more concrete threat.
“I’m going to come after you, but I know I won’t have to, because I know you’ll vote ‘yes,’ ” he said to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has led the conservative opposition to the AHCA. In political terms, “come after you” has a simple translation: I will ensure you’re kicked out of office.
It’s a threat that’s often made against elected officials — but much more rarely by a president, much less against a member of his own party.
Let’s walk through the calculus that Meadows is likely considering, then: Does Trump actually pose a threat if he weighs in against a House candidate?
The overarching caveat to all of this is that the November 2018 elections are 19 lifetimes from now, and a lot can change between now and then. So we’re left considering a world in which poll numbers mirror what they are today. And today, it’s hard to see how Trump’s threat carries much weight.
Trump’s greatest strength is his core of fervent support, the cluster of devoted voters who powered him through the early primaries and never wavered in the general. The people who come out to those rallies. But it’s not at all clear whether he can translate that energy toward someone else.
In 2010, there was some question as to whether the coalition of voters who surged to the polls for Barack Obama in 2008 would, at Obama’s urging, again turn out to vote. They did not, and the Democrats got blown out. This wasn’t Obama targeting a particular person, but it still revealed that his energy didn’t translate two years later. Exit polling tells us that 9 percent of Trump’s voters in 2016 were first-time voters; that’s a lot of people who are probably much less likely to turn out in 2018.
What’s more, there are no signs at the moment that Trump will have expanded that base of support much by next fall. His approval ratings have slipped from their already-low starting position. His Gallup approval numbers are substantially lower than most other new presidents — and are even lower than some presidents saw over the length of their entire terms.
What’s more, the bill itself is deeply unpopular. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday found that 17 percent of the country approves of the proposal, with 43 percent disapproving. Oh, my apologies: That’s 43 percent strongly disapproving. Overall, 56 percent disapprove of the bill, including a quarter of Republicans and nearly 6 in 10 independents.
That’s good news for the Mark Meadows of the world. Should an opponent try to frame opposition to the AHCA as being a failure to uphold a pledge to overhaul Obamacare — the operating premise of the legislation — Meadows can rely on broad public dissatisfaction with the way in which that overhaul was proposed. There’s enough critique of the legislation to power a rebuttal in any direction: Conservatives can say it didn’t go far enough and moderates that it went too far, with outside analysis to back them up.
It’s very much worth remembering that part of the 2010 blowout was blowback from the Obamacare vote earlier that year. As debate over that legislation went forward, opinion of it slipped — but it was still more positively viewed by the time the House voted on it than the AHCA is now.
So we have:
• A broadly unpopular president
• Backing an even-more-unpopular bill
• Using the threat of electoral loss as a stick, despite having only won the weakest presidential victory in American history.
Sure he can hold rallies of thousands of his supporters in contested districts. But House votes are determined by more than a few thousand votes, and many more people might lose or drop coverage under the bill in many districts than will attend a Trump rally. That recent rally in Kentucky doesn’t seem to have done much to change Sen. Rand Paul’s mind, did it?
This is probably why members of Congress don’t seem to be worried about the threat. Politico’s Playbook reports that members of Meadows’ conservative Freedom Caucus “don’t care about the president or his threats. Same goes for many of the moderates against the legislation.”
Trump was elected as the guy who could make deals, but that’s a lot harder on Capitol Hill than at the New York City zoning board. So instead, he’s at times resorted to his other favorite tool: threats and attacks. Those don’t seem like they’ll be much more effective.