The Republican Party comes into Election Day with a significant handicap. The party’s leader, the man in the White House, is less popular nationally coming into a midterm election than any president since 1974, save one: George W. Bush in 2006, whose popularity of four years earlier had vanished thanks to the military quagmire in Iraq.
Trump’s unpopularity has no similarly obvious external factor. There is only one obvious reason Trump is as unpopular as he is: Many Americans, especially many Democrats, simply do not like him. The percentage of Americans who hold strongly unfavorable views of Trump is generally higher than the same figure for past presidents. Part of it is the increase in partisanship in recent years, but part of it is the uniqueness of Trump.
Historically, such unpopularity is bad news for presidents' parties in midterm elections. Data from Gallup shows how presidential approval correlates to shifts in the House during midterms: The more popular the president, the better his party does. At Trump’s current popularity, historic data suggests a loss of nearly 40 seats in the House — about what FiveThirtyEight’s projections indicate as of writing.
There is something else that is broadly different about Trump, too — something that may not help in electoral politics but which provides a buffer of safety that past unpopular presidents (including, to some extent, Bush) have not enjoyed.
Trump has a major media organization that’s broadly treating his presidency in favorable terms — and which includes staffers whose support for Trump is explicit.
Fox News’s Sean Hannity promised on Twitter on Monday he was headed to Missouri simply to interview Trump for his nightly opinion program on the network. What ensued, though, was anything but. Trump invited Hannity to the stage to offer some comments during the rally, a request Hannity said he was “honored” to grant. That the campaign had previously announced Hannity as a guest at the rally undercut Hannity’s claim of objectivity in advance; his actual participation in the rally made it clearly false after the fact.
But this by itself is not new or unique. Hannity was joined onstage by Jeanine Pirro, who also hosts a show on Fox News. He’d also done the interview-slash-rally participant gig before, interviewing Trump at one of his rallies, complete with feedback from the audience. He’s not even the only Fox News staffer to have done that: In September, “Fox and Friends’s” Pete Hegseth interviewed Trump at a rally, the president’s answers punctuated by hoots and cheers from the crowd.
The overlap between Fox News and the administration has gotten so sprawling we may forget its expanse. Trump’s reported favorite to take over as U.N. ambassador following the resignation of Nikki Haley is current State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who was one of the anchors of “Fox and Friends” when Trump had a regular gig calling into the show to offer his thoughts. Trump’s most recent communications director is Bill Shine, a former executive at the network. (A White House pool reporter indicated that when Hannity came offstage on Monday night, Shine offered him a high five.) A number of former Fox New contributors now work for the administration: national security adviser John Bolton, Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and communications staffer Mercedes Schlapp.
Trump himself is an obviously huge fan of the network. Many days begin with his watching (and tweeting about) “Fox and Friends”' coverage. Should he suddenly tweet about some random issue on some weekday morning, it generally does not take long for reporters like Matt Gertz to link it back to something that aired on the cable network.
Why is that relationship with Fox News so important? For one thing because it is by far the outlet most trusted by members of the Republican Party. Polling from Suffolk University makes clear how dominant Fox is among members of Trump’s party.
Hannity’s appearance onstage was hardly the thing that made it obvious he and his network were broadly loyal to the president and his party. We noted earlier this year Fox’s coverage was generally friendlier to Trump than the other major cable news networks, barely covering the allegations raised by adult film actress Stormy Daniels but resolutely covering the migrant caravan Trump has declared central to his midterm election pitch.
The Fox News audience — averaging 2.5 million viewers in prime time earlier this year — see a different version of the world than the rest of the country. In July, we noted Trump’s approval was higher among people not paying much attention to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The best way to avoid such news, of course, was to tune in to Fox.
John Dean, once White House counsel for former president Richard Nixon, offered an interesting thought about his former boss to Rolling Stone earlier this year. Nixon resigned from office in 1974 as the Watergate investigation engulfed him and his staff. But, Dean said, “Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today.”
Trump’s unpopularity nationally is one thing, and it is likely to contribute to a poor showing by Republicans in House races this week. But his continued popularity with Republicans and the generally loyal support of the Republican base’s most-watched and most-trusted network is significant. If Trump and his party have a rough night, the White House will seek to explain it away. And it is likely the resulting spin, whatever it is, will be the message carried by Hannity and Pirro and many others on the network that is most trusted by 61 percent of Republicans.
When Trump introduced Hannity on Monday, his introduction struck directly at the truth of the relationship.
“I have a few people that are right out here. And they’re very special. They’ve done an incredible job for us. They’ve been with us from the beginning,” he said. “I’m going to start by saying Sean Hannity, come on up.”