The nation has been trending toward straight, party-ticket voting for many years. The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that Senate races increasingly had been won by the party that also won that state in the most recent presidential race. Stephen Wolf of Daily Kos Elections found a similar correlation in results for the U.S. House. The 2018 midterms results were even more heavily correlated to Trump support. Both the exit polls and pre-vote analysis based on the New York Times-Siena College polling show that support for Republican Senate and House candidates was closely related to Trump job approval.
This leaves Republican candidates in a quandary. Their fate is largely tied to the president’s. The 2018 results show that even spending tens of millions of dollars on traditional campaign advertising emphasizing a candidate’s virtues likely won’t succeed unless Trump support is high enough to begin with. But House and Senate candidates aren’t in charge of the president’s campaign, so it would appear they can’t measurably help themselves. They seem to be stuck in a trap they cannot escape.
That’s why Republican candidates need to run unorthodox campaigns. Instead of focusing largely on themselves and their opponents, they need to spend time and money building up the president. That means running the sort of campaign Trump won’t, focusing on persuading weak opponents of Trump to change their minds.
This effort would adopt an implicit, or perhaps explicit, slogan — “Trump: Not Perfect, Just Better.” It would acknowledge the president’s rhetorical and other deficiencies. Ads would have to start by saying things such as “Even Republicans know president Trump tweets too much” or “We all roll our eyes sometimes at something stupid that the president says.” They would then pivot to emphasizing the real accomplishments that unite Republicans and swing voters: tax cuts, suppressing the Islamic State, standing up to China. Such advertisements would focus on results and try to persuade voters that Trump may not be ideal, but his administration — and by extension, Republicans — are worth supporting.
Such a campaign would also highlight the president’s team. Vice President Pence is better thought of than Trump, so this campaign would play up his steady role in leading the coronavirus task force. It could highlight popular non-political public health officials such as Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx, arguing that Trump listened to their expert advice when the nation needed it most. It would make the most of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and highlight how she stood up to tyrants and terrorists. Trump’s team would be leveraged to build support for Trump. To get the team you like, you have to vote for the man you might not.
The idea would be to raise Trump’s job approval rating and hence the openness people have to voting for Republicans. The goal should be modest: Raise the president’s job approval rating in key states and districts by two percentage points. That’s not a lot, but in a world of straight-ticket voting, a two-point rise in Trump approval could translate to a four-point shift in vote margin in the Republicans’ favor. That shift would save many endangered House and Senate incumbents and could propel a few challengers to victory.
This is admittedly a high-risk, unproven strategy. But the alternative is worse. In 2018, only one Republican Senate candidate won in a state where Trump’s job approval was below 50 percent: Ted Cruz of Texas, where Trump’s approval was 49 percent. Increasing Trump’s local job approval to that magic level ought to be an important focus of every GOP congressional campaign.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed, everyone knew they had just committed treason against King George III. Benjamin Franklin is said to have summed up this sentiment by saying, “We must all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.” Republican congressional candidates afraid of being tied to Trump’s mast must realize that hanging together means just that. Acting together to boost Trump’s numbers might be able to save Trump, and that might just save them all.