No president in modern memory has done what Trump is doing right now. Despite an approval rating that has been underwater since the start of his presidency, he has chosen to make the coming midterm elections all about him. Not that they weren’t already, but few presidents have so willingly personalized a midterm the way this one has. It’s another example of Trump as rule-breaker in chief.
He has also gone back to basics with his message, one designed both to inflame and to energize. He hits all the cultural hot buttons that have left this country even more divided than it was before he was elected. He talks about crime and law and order, immigration caravans threatening the borders, judgeships and, of course, the economy. He denigrates Democrats at every turn with talk of mobs and violent protests.
He ventures into dangerous territory without regret or apology. On Thursday night in Montana, he reprised performances from some of his 2016 rallies, at which he encouraged supporters to get physical with protesters in the audience. This time, he lavished praise on Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who was convicted of assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of a 2017 special election. “Anybody who can do a body slam, he’s my kind of —” Trump said, breaking off his sentence as the audience cheered in approval.
At the time of his sentencing (which included a deferred jail term), Gianforte said he wasn’t proud of what he had done but was “ready to move on.” Trump apparently isn’t ready. “He’s my guy,” Trump exclaimed Thursday night, and completed it all by mimicking someone body-slamming someone else to the ground.
Trump’s praise for someone who attacked a reporter came at a time of international outrage over the slaying of journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump hesitated even to criticize the Saudis, as Turkish officials said they had evidence of a gruesome death at the hands of a Saudi hit team.
Since then he was warned of severe consequences for the Saudis. That warning remains to be carried out. In the meantime, Trump’s praise for Gianforte illustrates again his contempt for the news media, and that in a campaign he is willing to say whatever he thinks he needs to do to win, which in this case means firing up Republicans to make sure as many as possible turn out to vote.
When White House officials indicated at the end of summer that Trump wanted to be out of Washington campaigning almost constantly during the fall, there was skepticism. He does, after all, have a country to run. But the appeal of being center stage is intoxicating, and no president has been more eager to make himself the center of attention. Trump also knows instinctively that in a polarized country, he can do more than anyone in his party to counter an energized Democratic Party.
All midterm elections, especially those in the first term of a new president, are about the occupant of the Oval Office. But this one was destined to be so more than others because of Trump. Gary Jacobson, a distinguished emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, has observed that this will be “the most sweeping and divisive national referendum on any administration as least since the Great Depression.”
In a paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association over Labor Day weekend, Jacobson outlined the degree to which trends in party loyalty and the relationship between presidential approval and voting behavior add up to make it so. In his analysis of polls through late summer, he noted that Democrats were showing the kind of loyalty levels consistent with a Democratic wave election, “but Republicans are nearly as loyal in generic polls as [they] were in 2010 and 2014, much more so than in earlier Democratic ‘wave’ years.”
Jacobson also noted that presidential approval long has had a major influence on how people vote in midterm elections, adding that Trump’s ratings “have so far had a stronger influence than those of any predecessor.” Republicans not only agree with the president on most issues, he wrote, “they also take his side on virtually every major question about his performance and character, accepting even the most dubious propositions.”
There are some signs that, over the past month, the environment has improved for Republicans. Democrats remain the favorites to take control of the House, but some strategists say that poll margins in individual races have tightened compared to a month ago, leaving many close races heading into the last two weeks before Election Day. Meanwhile, Democratic hopes of taking control of the Senate have diminished; Republicans now talk of gaining a seat or even a few more there.
The ultimate problem for Republicans in the battle for the House is that they are playing defense in so many places, with nine or 10 times the number of GOP-held seats at risk compared with Democratic-held seats. Beyond that, Democratic challengers are proving to be good candidates. And they are extremely well funded. That puts Democrats in position to win a majority in the House, though what’s not clear is by how many more than the 23 they need. Among many Democratic strategists, there is no irrational exuberance today.
A combination of factors appears to have shifted the climate. One is a consolidation of the Republican vote, which was predictable based on Jacobson’s analysis, and on patterns from past elections. Another is the aftermath of the confirmation battle of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which provided a jolt of energy to the Republican base and may have had a particular effect in energizing white men without college degrees, who remain the hard core of the Trump base.
Another factor, however, could be the president himself, his ability to shape both the conversation and the electorate. What worries some Democrats is that in typical elections, enthusiasm goes up on one side and down on the other. This year, enthusiasm has been up among Democrats, and, among some groups, way up. But the corresponding falloff in enthusiasm among Republicans is not taking place. If GOP voters are not quite as intensely focused as Democrats, they’re not down as much as some Democrats had hoped.
The president now continually says he’s on the ballot this year, which is figuratively correct. He also says he won’t accept responsibility if Republicans lose the House. Apparently, for all he’s doing to shoulder the burden ahead of the election, if there’s bad news on Election Day, the buck will stop elsewhere.