I’ve tried everything to avoid thinking about the next election — family travel, yard work, crossword puzzles. But now it’s only five months away, barely longer than the gestation period of a North American beaver, or the Stanley Cup playoffs. November can’t be avoided any longer.
In this climate of political frenzy, anyone who tries to predict the outcome must be either deluded or clairvoyant. Yet we’re close enough, perhaps, to see some key features of the battlefield. For instance:
There will be no Trump collapse.
From the moment late in 2016 when Hillary Clinton’s formless, themeless, listless campaign handed the White House to Donald Trump (assisted by Comrade Putin), Democrats have been counting on the reckless, heedless, careless novice to return the favor. Rather than melt down, though, President Trump is gaining strength.
After a rocky start, the president has cut himself loose from the highly unpopular Congress to create a clear account of his unusual reign, which he repeats with unflagging discipline. He’s a rulebreaker who gets results, and the enemies of change are conspiring to stop him. This is a polarizing message, indeed. But Trump appears to understand that popularity and unpopularity aren’t necessarily opposites. They can be partners: Emotion runs both ways.
Since Trump found his footing and lasered in on this message, his political fortunes have brightened considerably. Last December, the RealClearPolitics rolling average of presidential approval polls showed him underwater by a dangerous 21 percentage points. Nearly 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the president’s performance, while his approval rating sagged into the 30s.
But look what’s happened since. Despite a stalled stock market, and with the Republican agenda dead in the water, Trump’s numbers have popped to the surface. His approval rating has risen from a dismal 37 percent to 44 percent — not bad in this sour age. (At the same point in his presidency, Barack Obama had fallen to 46 percent approval on his way down to 44.)
Meanwhile, the gap between Trump’s approval and disapproval numbers has narrowed significantly, from 21 points to eight. Admittedly, that’s a pretty solid eight-point deficit; the intensity of opposition to Trump is unusually high. But his command of the GOP going into the midterm is complete. According to Gallup polling, Trump enjoys greater Republican loyalty than any president of the post-World War II era other than George W. Bush after 9/11.
Democrats have a mammoth task on their hands.
Trump’s utter domination of the political debate — he programs the news with his Twittering thumbs — has made it easy to forget the rest of the story. From state legislatures to governor’s mansions, from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, Democrats enter this election from the bottom of a deep, deep hole.
And their Plan A for escaping the hole, a big Blue Wave that will lift Democrats from coast to coast, may already have crested far out at sea. Looking again at the polling averages on RealClearPolitics, we see that Democrats enjoyed a sturdy 13-point advantage over Republicans in December among voters asked which party they favored to run Congress. That edge has ebbed to a mere 3.2 points.
On the other hand, Democrats have been overperforming.
From Virginia to Arizona to Alabama, Democratic voters in the Trump era have turned out in droves for off-year and special elections. Districts that Trump won by double-digits in 2016 have been turned into nail-biters thanks to his intensely energized opposition. And there is no shortage of enthusiastic Democratic flag-bearers: Their primaries are so stocked with fresh-faced newcomers that they might as well be auditions for “The Voice.”
What Democrats don’t have, not yet anyway (and time is running out), is a message. The deep philosophical rifts that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) exploited in his surprisingly strong challenge to Clinton’s coronation two years ago have not healed. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) grip on the reins of the House Democrats is tight but lifeless.
What looked like a winning message last winter — “not Trump” — appears less potent today. The president has set the bar for himself so low that if November comes and he hasn’t been frog-marched from the Oval Office in handcuffs, and hasn’t rendered the Earth a glowing nuclear ember, a sizable number of Americans will judge him a success.
It’s the economy, stupid.
Politics, like comedy, is all about timing, and Trump’s has been exquisite. Years of unprecedented pump-priming by the Federal Reserve have finally produced optimism about a (relative) gusher of economic growth, especially with unemployment rates falling and consumer confidence up. Congressional Republicans have further juiced things with a huge tax cut and massive deficit spending.
Dark clouds appear on the horizon. Rising oil prices. A looming trade war. And always, the wild card named Robert S. Mueller III.
But for now, the president’s political forecast is partly sunny.
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