Consider the 2016 election from President Trump’s point of view. He was told, over and over, that he had no chance. He was told that before he got in the race; he was told that once he won the Republican nomination; he was told that as Election Day approached. And then: Surprise! He won.
Whether he believed his rhetoric over the course of the campaign — there was a quiet ocean of support ready to back him; polls and the media were wrong — the results of the election seemed to validate those claims. He said he was a political genius in so many words. What if . . . he actually was? (We asked two campaign experts this question last year. Verdicts were mixed.)
We all have something like this, just at lower stakes. The tree in the neighborhood that looks a little wobbly and you tell a friend that it’s going to fall. After the next big storm: You’ve been validated! You’re not an arborist, sure, but something looked off about it, and your prediction was right. So maybe . . . you’re an arborist?
Anyway, in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, Trump was asked about the upcoming midterm elections. If the Republicans lose control of the House (as seems likely), does Trump bear the blame?
"No,” Trump responded, “I think I’m helping people."
(It’s not clear whether the AP’s headline on this subject — “Trump tells AP he won’t accept blame if GOP loses House” — is what prompted the president’s “FAKE NEWS” tweet on Wednesday morning.)
"Look, I’m 48 and 1 in the primaries, and actually it’s much higher than that because I endorsed a lot of people that were successful that people don’t even talk about,” he said. “But many of those 48, as you know, were people that had no chance, in some cases.” He listed some races in which he claimed to have had a positive effect for candidates.
We’ve been through this before: The numbers he presents are a bit wonky. But the bigger problem for Trump’s argument is that he re-framed the question on obviously favorable terms. Sure, Trump can influence the electorate in a Republican Party primary — those voters are all Republicans! Republicans like Trump. The AP is talking about November, Democrats against Republicans, and Democrats (and independents) have a much different opinion of the president.
The Post and our partners at ABC News released a new poll over the weekend that gets at this question.
Trump's approval is still underwater, as they say, with more people disapproving of him than approving. That's true among Democrats and, to a lesser extent, independents. (The graphs below include only those who say they're certain to vote.)
Asked whether it was important to have a candidate who shared the respondent’s view of Trump, about 6 in 10 said it was — but those who disapprove of Trump were more likely to say that was important.
We also asked which party respondents wanted to see have control of Congress: The Democrats, to serve as a check on Trump, or the Republicans, to support his agenda?
More than half of respondents, including nearly 6 in 10 independents, said the former.
That’s a pretty clear picture. Sure, lots of Republicans want to show support for Trump, but more respondents explicitly insist on candidates who oppose Trump and want Democrats to control Congress to keep Trump in check.
Trump’s rocky record shows in the special election results since his inauguration. Sure, Trump-backed Republicans won primaries (often against weak competitors), but his record in Democrat-vs.-Republican races is more mixed.
So why is Trump so confident? Ostensibly because of 2016.
“I think we’re going to do well,” he said to the AP, describing the crowds he saw two years ago and how that suggested to him that he would emerge victorious. (A pedant would note that crowd size bears little relation to actual vote totals, as evidenced by the popular-vote margin in Trump’s race.) (I am a pedant.)
"Honestly, it feels very much like it did in ’16,” he later added, admitting, “Now, I’m not sure that that’s right.” Why not? “I’m not running,” he continued. He said that people had come up to him to say that they loved him personally but didn’t think he cared about Congress and so weren’t going to vote.
We’ve seen this pattern before, too. After Trump endorsed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie last year and Gillespie lost, Trump blamed the candidate for “not embrac[ing] me or what I stand for.” Would that have helped in blue Virginia during an election in which Democrats surged to the polls to some extent to show opposition to Trump? Almost certainly not.
The 2016 election taught him that being himself and trusting his gut would allow him to buck the experts and see victory. It showed him that his core base was enough to power a political victory. Sure, there are asterisks — he only won because of the electoral college; he won because skeptical Republicans reverted to partisan loyalty; he won because his opponent was also broadly unpopular — but those get overlooked. The tree fell; he knew what he was talking about.
Trump gets to have it both ways. If Republicans win, it's because voters were energized by Trump to come vote. If Republicans lose, it's because they didn't sufficiently energize voters by being like Trump.
Ignored in that equation, just as they were ignored in Trump’s original response: the voters who are energized in opposition to Trump. Those voters are Trump’s responsibility, too — and there are a lot of signs they’re the bigger group in this election.