In the months before the 2002 midterm elections, President George W. Bush was still enjoying the surge in approval that he saw after the terrorist attacks of the previous September. Seventy-one percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing, according to Gallup polling, including nearly half of Democrats.
Unsurprisingly, then, bashing Bush was not a popular tactic in campaign ads. Of 4,883 ads that ran in June and July of that year, only 12 offered negative assessments of Bush, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG that was analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Four years later, in Bush’s second midterm elections, that had changed. He was now at about 40 percent approval, with only about 1 in 10 Democrats viewing his term positively. Republicans ran some ads depicting Bush positively, but only about 4 percent in total. Democrats, on the other hand, mentioned Bush in a negative context in more than an eighth of the ads that ran over those two months in 2006.
In 2018, there’s another Republican president who, like Bush, has an approval rating that’s at about 40 percent. Like Bush, Trump is viewed positively by only about 9 percent of Democrats. Trump is slightly more popular than Bush with his own party, but not by much.
But the difference in the ads each saw during the relevant midterm election is stark. In June and July of 2018, about 10 percent of political ads mentioned Trump in a negative context, more than Bush saw in 2006. But about 15 percent of ads mentioned Trump positively — about the same percentage as mentioned Bush positively in 2002.
You will not be surprised to learn that Republican candidates are the driver of those positive ads for Trump. More than a quarter of ads from members of his party mention Trump in favorable terms. Only about 1 in 5 ads from Democrats depict him negatively.
Compare that to how strongly Republicans targeted President Barack Obama in 2014. That year, ads from Republican candidates in June and July mentioned Obama negatively more than 40 percent of the time. Obama wasn’t terribly unpopular, with an approval rating slightly above where Bush was in 2006 and Trump is now, according to Gallup. He was just targeted much more heavily.
If we compare the mentions of presidents in ads with their approval ratings at the end of July in each year, that pattern becomes more obvious.
We’ve highlighted three sections. The number of ads by Democrats mentioning Bush in a negative light in 2006 was only about 13 percent (column marked a). In 2010, 24 percent of Republican ads targeted Obama in negative terms and, four years later, 43 percent did (b). But in all three years, the presidents were at about the same level of overall approval (c). Obama was targeted as though he was hugely unpopular in a way that Trump hasn’t been.
The question is why. Is this a function of the changed political atmosphere since 2006? A function of the Republicans targeting Obama in a way that Democrats won’t reciprocate? (Republican ads mentioning Obama negatively in 2010 were a higher percentage of their party’s ads that year than Democratic ads targeting Trump are now.)
Or is it because Trump is slightly more popular with Republicans than Bush was? Nearly 9 in 10 Republicans approve of Trump. He’s been explicit about trying to keep his base energized, and polling suggests that enthusiasm among Republicans to support their president in the midterms is higher than it was in 2006 or among Democrats in 2010 or 2014.
If you’re a Republican looking to win in November, goosing turnout in a Republican-leaning district by bear-hugging the president might make some sense. It’s not a guaranteed strategy, given how unpopular Trump is with Democrats and independents, but it might help explain the data above.
We do know how those four past elections turned out. In 2002, Bush’s party gained seats in the House. In 2006, when he was less popular, the Democrats surged and took over control of the chamber. In 2010, the opposite happened and, in 2014, Republicans added more seats.
A popular president that doesn’t attract much flak probably made a difference. How will an unpopular president who attracts less flak than might be expected do?