It’s too early for a genuine gut check about what the midterm elections might produce in November in terms of control of Congress. Nonetheless, political strategists are debating whether there has been a recent change in the political environment that could ease fears among Republicans that a big blue wave is coming.
President Trump’s approval rating has ticked up from its lows of last year. The economy continues to grow. The unemployment rate is now below 4 percent. People feel more optimistic about the economy, and fewer people think the country is seriously off track. The gap between voting intentions for the House, which showed a big advantage for Democrats earlier this year, has narrowed.
These are metrics that strategists monitor closely. A number of the statistics have been reliable indicators ahead of past elections, at least in describing the general parameters of the outcome. Just which ones are the most reliable is something strategists have long debated.
That’s certainly true today, given the degree to which Trump has scrambled how traditional polling measures should be interpreted. Recall that on Election Day 2016, about 6 in 10 voters said he was not qualified to be president, yet he won a comfortable electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton.
Some Republicans see something unusual in today’s numbers. Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, is one of them. “There’s a lot of stuff going on that we just haven’t seen before,” he said.
Newhouse sent along a chart that compares four previous wave elections: 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2014. In all cases, the percentage of people who, at the time of the election, said the country was heading in the right direction was just below 30. By his measure, it’s currently 39 percent. “Can you have a wave election if ‘right direction’ is 38 or 40 percent?” he said. “Is that possible?”
Trump’s current approval rating, while better than it was, is still in a danger zone, given history. Presidents with approval ratings below 50 percent often have seen their parties suffer sizable losses in midterm elections.
But Newhouse thinks Trump’s approval rating might be undervalued. “It ought to be 10 points or eight points higher,” he said. “There’s no precedent for a president since 1980 of having approval six to seven points above ‘right direction.’ None.”
He said that a review of numbers dating back to the 1980s showed that the correlation between presidential approval and the percentage of people who say the country is going in the right direction has long been relatively fixed, with presidential approval about 13 to 16 percentage points higher than the right-direction number.
Democratic strategists differ among themselves about just how well their party will do in the fall, but they sound less concerned about some of the recent indicators of the national mood. “What I see on the ground in my campaigns is different [than the national numbers],” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said. “The enthusiasm gap [the difference between intensity among Democrats vs. Republicans] shows no sign of abating.”
Greenberg thinks that winning the House is “more than possible but not definite,” but she is not without concerns. Other Democrats are much more bullish. “As the resident pessimist among Democrats, I am extremely optimistic about November, beyond anyone else,” said pollster Geoff Garin. He said he thinks Democrats will win the House and have a good chance of taking the Senate as well.
For both Greenberg and Garin, the single biggest factor they see working in Democrats’ favor is the energy of their voters. “The level of anxiety around Trump, the desperation for change, is palpable,” Greenberg said. “I don’t think national polls can capture this organic, bottom-up” sentiment.
Garin said the rise in Trump’s overall approval rating misses the key dynamic of this midterm, which is the anti-Trump mood among Democrats. Since the start of Trump’s presidency, the percentage of people who strongly disapprove of his performance in office has been significantly larger than the percentage who strongly approve.
Mark Blumenthal, of the online polling firm SurveyMonkey, recently published an analysis of Trump’s approval ratings. Strong disapproval has fluctuated since February 2017 to today: ranging from 41 to 46 percent and currently at 42 percent. Strong approval has fluctuated between 21 percent and 27 percent and stands at 24 percent.
Among Republicans and independents who lean toward neither party, Trump’s overall approval rating has fluctuated a bit, with a small decline in 2017 and a recent rise of about three to four points. His approval among Republicans in the SurveyMonkey polls is at 87 percent, two points shy of its all-time high. Among independents, it’s now at 35 percent, also two points below its all-time high.
Democrats’ assessments, however, have barely budged. Over the span of Trump’s presidency, his approval among Democrats has ranged between 7 and 9 percent. “The relative stability in Trump’s numbers among Democrats owes to their intensity of feeling,” Blumenthal wrote.
Such low levels of intensity of support toward the president reflect the ambivalence many feel about his conduct and behavior. But Republicans also could be hampered by the kinds of internal divisions that continue to plague the party. The most recent example came on Friday, with the collapse of the farm bill in the House, which once again revealed a GOP deeply divided on issues, this time on immigration.
Over the past year, the Cook Political Report has repeatedly updated its chart of competitive elections. Month by month, quarter by quarter, that chart has shown more Republicans in potentially difficult races. In the Cook team’s race-by-race assessments, there has not yet been any reduction in the number of competitive seats.
In July 2017, the Cook team said the number of Republican districts rated as toss-up or worse was just eight. By January of this year, there were 20 GOP districts at most risk. Its most recent rating showed that number now at 30. Those numbers exclude districts rated as leaning in one direction or another, which also have moved against Republicans. By comparison, the number of Democratic toss-ups has moved from four to six to three at those benchmarks.
Heading toward the fall, Republican strategists will be scratching any way they can to take a few seats off the map, to make the Democrats’ path to a House majority more challenging, whether by hoping for improvements in the president’s approval ratings or in the public’s general mood, or by bolstering their candidates with money and ground forces, or by hoping that Democrats end up with candidates too liberal for some of the competitive districts.
There are still some unknowns. Will the economy continue apace, and will voters give Republicans and the president credit? Will Trump pull off a successful summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and if that happens, does it affect the elections? Can the president use his campaign skills to transfer his popularity among core Trump supporters to other Republican candidates? Will special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation produce something that changes the current environment?
“Nobody’s saying the blue wave is not going to happen,” Newhouse said. “The question is, how deep is it going to be?”