The November election could be about many things. Immigration. Tax cuts and the economy. The Supreme Court and the future of abortion rights. Trade and tariffs. The menu changes with the cascading of events. Ultimately, the midterms will be about intensity. On that factor, Democrats ought not to underestimate President Trump.
Trump dominates like no president in recent memory. He dominates the daily conversation in the country. He manufactures diversions and distractions, starts brush fires or all-out conflagrations. He creates stirs constantly with tools his predecessors never had or imagined using. He says whatever he wants to say, regardless of the truth. He puts the news media on the defensive and calls journalists the “enemy of the people.” He makes himself impossible to ignore. His supporters love it.
As with all presidents, he dominates the executive branch, over which he has superior though not unlimited power, as his unhappiness with and hectoring of the Justice Department reminds. He dominates Congress, because of the acquiescence of Republican elected officials, nearly all of whom fear his wrath and see progress on their own agendas. Thanks to the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Trump soon will put a bigger stamp on the Supreme Court. With the next nomination, he can shift the balance on the court for a generation.
Internationally, he is the dominant figure. He forces other leaders, with the possible exception of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to react to what he says and does. His disregard for the Western alliances that have held together since the end of World War II have fostered strains and resistance. His pronouncements cause alarm and unhappiness in countries long allied with the United States. Everyone must react to him.
Two years ago, none of this seemed likely, and to Democrats and many others even possible. It was two years ago July 5 that then-FBI Director James B. Comey declared that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails had revealed that she had been “extremely careless” in handling sensitive information but had produced nothing that warranted prosecution. While not a total clean bill of health, Comey’s findings lifted a burden that had plagued Clinton throughout her presidential campaign. Her path to November suddenly looked more open.
A few weeks later, Trump accepted the Republican nomination in Cleveland and delivered what his critics saw as a dark acceptance speech — a dystopian view of the state of the country and a call for the restoration of law and order. Things were so bad, he said, that “only I can fix it.” It was, as so many things with the president are, an upside-down strategy from what conventional political advisers might have recommended. Meanwhile, chants of “lock her up” echoed throughout the convention arena during the nightly programs.
A few weeks after that, Trump was embroiled in a nasty rhetorical fight with a Gold Star family, whose patriarch, Khizr Khan, had used the stage of the Democratic National Convention to decry the GOP nominee’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and to question Trump’s fidelity to the Constitution. It was a needless fight, one of Trump’s own choosing and against the advice of his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Shortly after, he brought in new leadership to oversee his campaign. He was behind in the polls and had the highest unfavorable rating of any presidential nominee in the history of polling, worse even than Clinton’s. Then he won the presidency.
Trump understood something that others did not appreciate. As one Republican with long experience on Capitol Hill recently observed privately, Trump has traded approval for intensity. His overall approval ratings remain below 50 percent, but those with him are devoted to his leadership. It was that intensity that helped him win. And it was the lack of intensity for Clinton that helped doom her candidacy, allowing Trump to win the electoral college while losing the popular vote.
In a divided country and a charged political environment, Trump has pursued a strategy of energizing and inciting his supporters rather than expanding his circle. He pits Americans against other Americans and stirs animosity toward the establishment and the media, rarely with subtlety.
It is a divisive strategy, cynical in the eyes of opponents. Those opponents say it is a losing strategy. Maybe that is correct. In the meantime, Trump continues both to challenge orthodoxy on some issues, such as trade, while advancing other issues prized by conservatives who otherwise recoil at the president’s style and behavior. He has begun to move the country in directions he favors, though much remains unfinished business.
Polls show an imbalance in public perceptions of the president. Many more people strongly disapprove of his performance than strongly approve of it. Other surveys show that Democrats are more intensely interested in the November elections than are Republicans, although the balance has varied in different surveys.
But there are other ways to measure the electorate, and that is just how much intensity exists around particular issues. Many polls ask voters to list their most important issues, but those don’t fully capture which issues are truly motivating to which voters. Immigration might have been important to voters on both sides in 2016, but it appears to have been far more motivating for Trump voters.
What will be the case this fall? The coming Supreme Court decision is an example. If Republicans succeed in confirming a new justice before the election, how will that affect Democrats? Will they be angry and more energized to flip control of the House and Senate or disappointed in their leaders and more complacent about turning out to vote? Or will the fight over the nomination remind Republicans that, whatever their feelings about Trump’s style, his presidency is producing some results about which they care passionately.
If there is one group energized to vote in behalf of Democrats, it is college-educated women. They have shown repeatedly, at rallies and marches, as first-time candidates and as voters in some key elections, that they are prepared to support Democratic candidates by significant numbers. But will female voters worried about Trump’s presidency alone be enough to create the kind of blue wave Democrats have talked about?
More questionable is what happens among younger voters, who give Trump and his policies the lowest ratings of any age group. Also, will minority voters, whose support for Clinton flagged in some places two years ago but who were crucial to the victory by Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race, be enthusiastic in November in races where their votes could tip the balance?
To counter what is stirring in behalf of the Democrats, the president has been moving around the country, holding rallies aimed at boosting support for Republicans challenging Democrats in Senate and House contests.
Those rallies, raucous as ever, underscored the enthusiasm that exists for the president among his core supporters. In return, the president delivered the kinds of speeches designed to keep them energized. And those Clinton emails and the investigation that Trump claims was biased still light fires with his base.
The landscape tilts against the president’s party this year, typical of midterm elections. But Democrats underestimated what they were seeing at Trump rallies in 2016 and how that would translate on Election Day. They will need to match the president in their capacity to energize their potential voters. That’s the battle that will rage between now and November.