A voter fills out a ballot at a polling station in the Terrace Park Community Building on Election Day in 2016 in Cincinnati. (John Minchillo/AP)
Opinion writer

The media’s predilection for false balance and a weird awe of President Trump’s defiance of all moral and constitutional strengths (He defies conventional politics! He breaks all the rules!) leads to the “nothing matters” and “his base is still with him!” sort of coverage that seems to concede, even after the 2018 midterms, that Trump is politically successful.

But the data we have suggest that, in fact, he’s doubling down on a losing strategy. It’s not merely that Democrats hold the same generic poll lead they did leading up to the 2018 midterms (six percentage points), or that Trump has never cleared 50 percent approval, or that the gender gap has become a gender chasm. Trump really is losing a key part of his support. In other words, “nothing matters” and “his base is still with him” are wrong.

A Democracy Fund Voter Study Group poll of “6,779 Americans, most of whom had been surveyed previously as part of a longitudinal panel,” provides several indications that playing to his base has been a mistake.

For starters, he’s making more steadfast opponents than steadfast supporters:

Despite a growing and healthy economy, more than half (56 percent) of Americans say they have an “unfavorable” opinion of the president. Just 4 in 10 (40 percent) report a “favorable” opinion. These numbers have only changed slightly since the 2016 VOTER Survey, when 52 percent held an “unfavorable” opinion and 44 percent held a “favorable” opinion.

Notably, there are now almost twice as many Americans with a “very unfavorable” opinion of the president than there are those with a “very favorable” opinion (49 percent vs. 25 percent). …

Even among partisans, positive views of President Trump are softer than negative views. Democrats are much more likely to have a “very unfavorable” opinion of the president than Republicans are to have a “very favorable” opinion (86 percent vs. 56 percent).

In addition, the soft Trump voters are drifting away, while most other voters (pro- and anti-Trump) have not changed their views:

Only Obama-Trump voters have had a significant change in their view of President Trump over the last two years. In the 2016 VOTER Survey, more than 8 in 10 (85 percent) Obama-Trump voters held a “favorable” view of the president — 19 percentage points higher than in 2019 (66 percent). Even small movement among these voters — who represented 5 percent of voters in 2016 — may prove significant heading into the 2020 presidential election. Obama-Trump voters are also disproportionately white, non-college educated and, as a result, are likely to be well distributed geographically for the purpose of electoral impact.

Wait. A significant number of non-college-educated whites are turned off by Trump? Oddly, you never see them featured in coverage. It’s as if many media outlets’ conviction that Trump has held onto his supporters swamps the reality that many of them have defected.

The poll also has some helpful insights for Democrats. “Overwhelming majorities think it is ‘important’ that the next president support economic policies that help ordinary Americans (96 percent), fight for the values they believe in (91 percent), and seek compromise so that things get done (84 percent),” the pollsters found. “About two-thirds (69 percent) say that it is ‘important’ that they advocate for racial and ethnic minorities in this country.”

Democrats have an opportunity not only to win back the Obama-Trump voters (who may have bought the notion that Trump would shake up Washington, fight for them on trade and restore economic prosperity to the Rust Belt) but also to retain the suburban, college-educated voters who fled the GOP to vote for Democratic congressional candidates in 2018.

Neither the Obama-Trump voters nor the suburban defectors are looking for a revolution. If anything, they may be amenable to a candidate promising to do what Trump did not (protect health care and lower health-care costs, root out corruption, manage government competently) and do so without the drama and the divisiveness that are mainstays of his governing style. As Trump becomes more chaotic and his corruption more evident, Democrats have a chance to present an alternative type of leadership (calm, inclusive, informed).

Democrats most certainly need to energize their base. However, in 2018 they did that with moderate candidates able to win over disgruntled Republicans and wavering independents. Base enthusiasm is critical, but it’s equally important to recognize that the voters who Trump has alienated may be the difference between winning and losing.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Voters have had it with Trump

Paul Waldman: The unspoken assumption behind the vow of outreach to Trump voters

David Byler: Democrats should stop chasing Trump’s base. They have their own white working-class voters.

Greg Sargent: Trump feeds his voters one of his most ridiculous scams yet