Republican Dan Bishop’s narrow win in Tuesday’s redo election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District isn’t just good news for House Republicans. Despite Bishop’s small, two-percentage-point margin of victory, it’s a rare bit of positive news for President Trump’s reelection chances.
It’s no secret that Trump had a bad August. His job approval rating has slumped to only 43.1 percent in Wednesday’s RealClearPolitics average, about two points down from mid-July. Polls generally show him trailing Democratic front-runner Joe Biden by more than 10 percentage points, and they show him behind other potential nominees such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by smaller margins. Numbers like these caused many pundits to think the 9th District’s Democratic nominee Dan McCready could pull off a win in a seat Trump carried by 12 percentage points in 2016.
Bishop’s win shows that Trump’s appeal to his voters remains strong even as his ratings are in a slump. Bishop received 50.7 percent, only a few percentage points below Trump’s 54.4 percent from 2016. Moreover, past patterns from congressional special elections during the Trump era suggest that Democrats, who obviously detest the president, are likelier to turn out than Republicans in these lower-profile races. That’s what happened in the demographically similar race in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District in 2018. Republican Troy Balderson captured only 50.1 percent in his special election win but increased that to 51.4 percent when he ran against the same Democratic opponent in November’s general election.
The county-by-county results were also positive for Trump. Trump won North Carolina in part because of support from Richmond and Robeson counties, two rural locales that President Barack Obama won. McCready won both counties in the 2018 election but lost Richmond on Tuesday and carried Robeson by only one point, down significantly from his 15-point margin this past November. Trump’s appeal among Obama-Trump voters apparently remains strong.
None of this guarantees Trump would win reelection if the vote were held today. Trump’s share of the vote in North Carolina 9 was about four percentage points ahead of his 2016 statewide result. A simplistic extrapolation from Tuesday’s result places him at only about 46 percent of the vote in a state he needs to win. Even under the likely assumption that presidential year turnout will be more favorable to Trump than the turnout Tuesday night, the simple extrapolation still has him behind.
But the vote is not being held today, and there is strong reason to think Trump can improve his standing. It was not too long ago when his job approval stood at 45 percent nationally. Get back to that level, and the results Tuesday night suggest Trump would narrowly win North Carolina. And that is before the Democrats select his opponent.
National polls are clear that Trump’s chances increase significantly the more progressive the nominee. Warren is the best example of this trend. She leads Trump by only five points in recent polls despite Trump’s low job approval, and she performs much worse than Biden or Sanders in key swing states. The RealClear polling average shows her trailing Trump in North Carolina, Arizona, Ohio and Nevada. The RCP average shows her tied with Trump in Florida, and the most recent Marquette Law School poll shows her tied with him in Wisconsin. Those results point to another Trump victory in the electoral college against Warren even as he loses the popular vote — and that’s when his job approval rating is below its recent average.
Predicting elections 14 months out is a fool’s errand, and I do not claim here that Trump will win reelection. But Tuesday night’s results do show that Republican — and by implication, Trump — support remains buoyant even in challenging circumstances. Smart Democrats know that Trump is far from down and out. Bishop’s win will likely cause them to redouble their efforts to keep the party from straying off the less extreme path that would give Trump his best shot at a second term.