There are two reasons that 2018 is shaping up to be a rough year for the Republican Party. The first is that generic balloting — asking people which party for which they plan to vote to represent them in the House — has consistently showed a wide advantage for Democrats. (The margin is an eight-point lead on average for Democrats — down from a month ago but still wide.) The other reason is that President Trump is awfully unpopular and, while the correlation isn’t super tight, a less-popular president’s party generally winds up with a lower percentage of the national House vote.
Here, for example, are the results of every House election since 1950 (excluding 1976, for which there wasn’t a close Gallup approval poll).
The more popular the president, generally speaking, the better his party fares. And Trump, as you’ve heard repeatedly, is not very popular. He’s at 38 percent approval, about where President George W. Bush was in 2006. Republicans won 44 percent of the national House vote that year — and lost the House.
But missing from that analysis is an important detail: Even in solidly Republican states, Trump isn’t that popular. And that, too, could mean trouble.
On Tuesday, Gallup released state-by-state approval ratings for Trump, which we discussed briefly in the context of the State of the Union address. In 12 states is Trump at or above 50 percent approval — half as many states as he won in 2016 with that percentage of the vote.
This is an apples-and-oranges comparison for a variety of reasons. The 2016 race was a pick between two people; Americans could not like Trump and like Hillary Clinton less.
It’s also comparing voters with residents. We’ve labeled some of the states on the chart below. Texas and Indiana are much less approving of Trump than when they voted for him in 2016, probably for different reasons. The approval numbers in Texas include some chunk of the population unable to vote — an indirect way of referring to the state’s immigrant population. Indianans were voting in 2016 not only for Trump but also for Mike Pence, the state’s governor.
Notice Utah, as well: The conservative state was skeptical of Trump’s candidacy but is among the more supportive states in terms of his presidency.
But again, there are 12 states where Trump is at or above 50 percent approval — mostly small states without many House seats. In total, Republicans hold 37 seats in those states to four held by Democrats. (A full chart is below.)
Most seats held by Republicans, in other words, are in states where less than half the population approves of the president. In fact, there are 64 Republican seats rated as in-play by Cook Political Report (toss-ups, leaning Republican or likely Republican) that are in states where Trump’s approval is less than 50 percent. Sixty of those seats are in states where Trump’s approval is less than 45 percent.
There’s a correlation between the popularity of Trump and the safety of those seats, of course. Deeply Republican places that always back the party also are more likely to support the party’s president. It’s also the case that, just as there’s variation from the national Trump approval rating within the states, there’s variation within House districts. So while Trump is deeply unpopular in California, that may not be the case in those Republican districts.
But still. Thirty-four contested Republican seats are in states where Trump’s approval rating is less than 40 percent, including Texas. To regain the majority, Democrats need to win 24 seats.
It’s important to remember, too, that these Cook ratings are as of right now. In past cycles that have resulted in big swings, the number of seats in play has increased over the course of the election year, as primaries sort out candidates and other people decline to seek reelection — and as a party’s position weakens.
If Trump’s popularity stays mired where it is now, particularly in places where Republicans need to defend a lot of seats, predictions of doom for the party seem entirely reasonable.