“I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me,” Trump boomed this month at a rally in Southaven, Miss. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”
He said much the same in West Virginia, where he was promoting the state’s GOP Senate nominee: “A vote for Morrisey is a vote for me,” Trump said, in a line that Morrisey’s campaign repurposed in a new ad.
And Trump’s namesake son, Donald Trump Jr., has been making a similar appeal, warning that while voters may not even know their local congressman, they intuitively understand that the Trump name is on the ballot. “The reality is for them, Trump is on the ticket in 2018,” Trump Jr. said during a recent campaign swing in Texas.
Midterm elections are, by some degree, referendums on a president and the party in power. But through force of personality and bold pronouncements, Trump has deliberately placed himself at the center of the November elections, explicitly telling voters to imagine they’re casting a ballot for him, rather than their local representative.
“And this surprises us how?” joked Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report.
Bill Stepien, the White House political director, said the strategy is an acknowledgment that Trump’s policies are already on the ballot this November, so he might as well use his personal appeal to try to move “the Trump coalition” to vote for Republican candidates who will support his agenda if elected.
“He’s the leader of the party, and he’s willing to put his own political capital on the line for the benefit of his party,” Stepien said. “The president knows how to fire up his base, he knows the DNA of his voters, and that’s what he’s responding to.”
The risk, however, is that in energizing his base, Trump could also fire up the Democratic side while alienating moderate suburban voters, who may be looking to Congress to serve as a check on the president.
“The fatal flaw” in Trump’s strategy, said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, “is that one, it motivates our side; and two, it makes the assumption that all previous Trump voters are still voting Republican, which, especially in House and governor races, we see is not the case.”
Trump advisers have repeatedly told the president that simply touting his accomplishments will not drive midterm turnout and that he needs to continue to position himself as the counterweight to a liberal Democratic “mob” threatening his achievements, people close to him said. They have also stressed that the unlikely coalition of voters who helped lift him to victory in 2016 may not be as motivated to vote in off-year elections, especially for Republicans who don’t share his unconventional style.
The president, meanwhile, has told White House aides that his supporters won’t come out to the polls if they don’t believe the election matters to him, two advisers added.
“He’s basically internalized the message that ‘I’m so important that people aren’t going to go out and vote unless it’s all about me,’ ” said a former White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid conversations.
Trump has been asking advisers how popular he is in specific districts — and comparing his current support with his 2016 margin. When he sees his numbers slipping in a particular district, advisers said, the president will become more determined to travel there. The president is now meeting several times a week with his political team to discuss the elections.
Already maintaining a robust travel schedule just weeks before the midterms, the president has told advisers he wants to campaign for Republicans six days a week — and sees these mega-rallies as a testing ground for his own 2020 reelection effort. He plans to travel nonstop in the final 10 days leading up to the Nov. 6 elections, advisers said.
Some advisers have urged him, without success, not to travel to Texas or Wisconsin, two states where the president has announced campaign rallies next week. The advisers had argued he would be wasting his time, because they believe Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is going to win his race, while Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) is likely to lose his.
While aides around Trump have grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of Republicans losing the House, the president himself privately insists the polls are fake and that his performances at rallies will carry Republicans to victory in the midterms.
“Every poll says — and most of the experts say — this has to do with how people feel about him, his administration and the direction of the country,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe. “Whether it is or isn’t about him, they are going to either blame it on him give him credit for winning. So when he sees a situation like that, his instinct is, ‘Let’s go for it.’ He remembers what his rallies did to bring out the base.”
The president and his political advisers are telling Republican candidates that the only way to win is to support Trump, especially on trade and the economy. The pitch so far has been met with “mixed responses back,” a senior White House official said.
Operatives and pollsters from both parties say the strategy offers both risks and possible rewards.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said the election is already nationalized, and Trump can be most helpful by pushing his voters to the polls.
“He understands this race is going to be about him and he’s going to embrace it one way or the other,” Newhouse said. “What we need is for Trump’s base and his softer supporters to understand what’s at stake this election.
Newhouse added: “If there’s a politician alive today who knows how to motivate his base, it’s Donald Trump.”
But Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor of Ohio, warned that some Trump voters may have “buyer’s remorse.”
“He’s got his base, but moderate to progressive independents, and even some Republicans, are tired of his bravado and don’t like him,” Strickland said.
On the other hand, Duffy said the Democratic base may already be approaching its peak enthusiasm levels, meaning his presence could have a larger impact among Republicans.
Democrats, Duffy said, “have been energized for months. What’s their ceiling? How much growth is left there? They are pretty close to their ceiling already.”
The real question for many is whether the president can motivate his lower-propensity voters, who may not have regularly voted before 2016. Trump played an influential role in many Republican primary contests, and he helped his party close the gap in several special elections. Yet Democratic Senate candidates in some states that Trump won — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are leading their Republican rivals in recent polling.
The president and his team also appear to be trying to have it both ways — positioning him as the savior if Republicans win but shrugging off blame if they lose. On Tuesday, Trump told the Associated Press that he bears no responsibility if Republicans don’t hold onto the House.
Presidents historically lose seats during midterm elections, as former president Barack Obama did in 2010 and 2014. His 2010 routing by Republicans was so devastating that he described it as a “shellacking” and publicly took personal responsibility.
Trump might luck into a better fate, Newhouse said.
“Whatever political rules we learned over the past two decades, that’s history,” Newhouse said. “Trump is rewriting the political rules here, so just because it didn’t work for Obama is no reason to believe it’s not going to work for Donald Trump.”
Robert Costa contributed to this report.