How Republicans are positioned for the upcoming midterm elections is, to a large extent, linked to how President Trump is viewed by the electorate. As positive views of Trump have dropped, Democrats have fared better in polling against Republicans. As Trump’s approval has improved, so have his party’s chances in November.
That Trump is as unpopular as he is — less popular now than any president since Harry Truman — is a central reason the Democratic advantage on the congressional ballot has been so constant. The first midterm election of a new presidency is usually bad for the president’s party (1994? 2010?), but Trump’s poor standing with voters seems likely to make this historic trend even worse.
Democrats are energized in part by thinking of the midterms as a referendum on Trump. So this comment from Trump at a campaign rally on Tuesday night probably wasn't terribly helpful in that regard.
“Republicans have to go out and vote. And they say if I was on the ticket, everybody would go. It would be a landslide. Even the fakers back there, they say that,” Trump said, referring to the news media. “And I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket because this is also a referendum about me and the disgusting gridlock that they’ll put this country through.”
When Barack Obama said in 2010 and 2014 that his policies were on the ballot, the comments served as a touchstone for his opponents, who were happy to demonstrate that this was very much the case. Obama, like Trump, was hoping that his base would be mobilized by knowing that they were needed to defend his agenda. But the exhortations were only necessary because the opposition was more motivated in the first place.
This year, polling from Pew Research shows that Republicans are more motivated to vote than were the Democrats in 2010 or 2014. In fact, Pew’s polling shows that Republicans are more motivated to vote than *Republicans* were in either of those years. But Democrats this year still have an enthusiasm advantage over Trump’s party.
That’s probably in part because of how deeply Democrats dislike Trump, a dislike that stems, in part, from Trump’s enthusiasm about playing to his base. Trump, unlike most elected officials, makes little effort to reach across the aisle for support. His policy priorities are the priorities of his base, and his rhetoric is rhetoric meant to amplify political divisions.
Shortly before Trump made that comment about how the election was a referendum on his presidency, he went on a riff about Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court of having assaulted her when they were in high school. Trump’s frustration with Ford had been obvious under the surface, but he’d been careful not to criticize her directly. Until Tuesday night.
“How did you get home? ‘I don’t remember.’ How’d you get there? ‘I don’t remember.’ Where is the place? ‘I don’t remember.’ How many years ago was it? ‘I don’t know.’ What neighborhood was it in? ‘I don’t know.’ Where’s the house? ‘I don’t know,’ ” Trump said. “Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? ‘I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.’ ”
The distorted imitation of Ford, who has said that the assault took place upstairs and that she is “100 percent” certain Brett Kavanaugh was her attacker, mirrored Trump’s most infamous imitation, when he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter on the 2016 campaign trail with the same refrain: “I don’t remember!”
The decision to disparage Ford was questionable for a number of reasons, but most obviously for political ones. How questionable was it? Even Brian Kilmeade, the usually sycophantic co-host of Trump’s favorite show, “Fox & Friends,” was spurred to “wonder about the wisdom tactically” of doing that. Trump “decided to blow it” by going after Ford, Kilmeade lamented.
Mind you, that’s not a criticism of the ethics of mocking Ford, just the political utility of it. One of the reasons that Republicans are in such a precarious position is that women broadly prefer Democratic candidates over Republican ones. Women are also more likely to view Trump with disapproval — and women are much more likely to believe Ford’s testimony than that of Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee. In other words, Trump not only decided to dismiss Ford’s claims, he decided to pour salt on the very issue that has spurred the most antipathy to him and his party from a critical voting bloc in recent weeks.
A few minutes later, he made the situation even clearer: Voters, this election is “a referendum about me.” The good news for Trump is that his “referendum” comment probably won’t get much pickup in the news media. The bad news is why it won’t.