Why Trump’s low approval rating doesn’t secure a future for the Democrats

By comparing polling to voting stats, Stephen Blank explains why growing anti-Trump sentiments do not threaten the Republicans' midterm chances.   

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September 8, 2017
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U.S. President Donald Trump departs after remarks on his proposed changes to the tax code during an event with energy workers at the Andeavor Refinery in Mandan, North Dakota, U.S. September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

I suspect that most of the people who will read this believe that Donald Trump is a horrid person. Like most New Yorkers, myself included, many Canadians track his declining polls, follow the investigations surrounding him and his administration and wonder if he will be impeached. They hope that Democrats will rise up and take control of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Recent polls reinforce these hopes: A Fox News poll shows that Trump’s national approval fell from 48 percent in February to 41 percent in August. Of those polled, 56 percent think he is “tearing the country apart” as against only 36 percent who feel he is “drawing the country together.” (Gallup polling last week showed his approval rate is the lowest yet — 35 percent.)

These data may be comforting if you’re looking for signs of Trump’s downfall but they don’t tell the main story — that Trump’s position remains secure and that the most likely result of the 2018 mid-term elections is not better for Trump’s critics, but worse.   

First, national data can be misleading in understanding US politics. Recall that Hillary Clinton out-polled Trump in the 2016 election by some 2.8 million votes. But note that her majority in California of 4.8 million accounts for that lead. (In Manhattan, Clinton trounced Trump by 570,000 to 65,000 votes.) Outside of California, Trump won by 1.4 million votes.

Dig a bit deeper. The US is made up of 3,100 counties. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton carried nearly half of them. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but carried only 700 counties. In 2012, Barack Obama won only 700 counties, but ran up large majorities in key urban counties in major swing states to win in the electoral college. In 2016, Hillary carried fewer than 500 counties — perhaps fewer than any popular-vote winner in the past century — although she ran up huge majorities in some of them.

We’ve long been told that American politics is local, local, local. Location of the votes is critical. Running up a huge majority in California won’t affect the outcome in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Trump turned out fewer voters, but they were spread in more counties.

Propensity — will your supporters actually turn out? — is the second key to American politics and the key to Trump’s situation.

Philip Bump of The Washington Post writes of “the Trump bubble”: “About a quarter of Americans strongly approve of Trump’s job performance. A quarter think he’s doing a better job than past presidents. A quarter think America’s position in the world has gotten stronger since he was inaugurated. A quarter think that the way he acts is presidential. A quarter thought it was appropriate for his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman to meet with a Russian lawyer offering negative information on Hillary Clinton.”

"The people in the Trump bubble are politically active, with high propensities to vote and to vote in primary as well as general elections."

Who are these bed-rock Trumpians? You’ve probably seen analyses of the Trump supporters that touch on many variables — level of education, views of race, economic situation, location, alienation, even health. But for sure, they are all strong conservatives. While overall Republican support for Trump has declined a bit, support among Republican conservatives remains solidly above 90 percent. This is the Trump bubble, but the people in this bubble are politically active, with high propensities to vote and to vote in primary as well as general elections.

They are not loyalist Republicans, however. Because so few Congressional districts are competitive among parties, the outcome of elections is often determined by the party primary — and this is where conservatives show their strength and their willingness to clobber party regulars. Given Trump’s continuing solid support among this very energetic constituency, most Republicans in Congress are profoundly reluctant to oppose the president. They fear an expensive, jarring primary struggle led by Trump-conservative loyalists.

There’s an interesting aside here: Trump’s erratic policy views don’t always track with those of his most committed supporters. But what they appear to like most about him — the source of the commitment — is that he, from their perspective, speaks his mind, that he’s seen as an outsider, and that he appears to fight the establishment. Trump clearly understands this, which is why he continues to organize campaign-style rallies where he “can really be himself.” 

Looking ahead

What about the 2018 mid-terms? Typically, presidents lose support in Congress in their mid-term elections. House Republicans now have a 46-seat majority — Democrats would have to take 24 seats away from the Republicans to gain a bare 218-215 majority. Democratic control of the House would greatly change the game in Washington — on budgets, finance, even on charges against the president. While no one could say that this is impossible, it’s pretty unlikely. At the moment, three Democratic seats and seven Republican seats are viewed as toss-ups — where the outcome could go either way. Seventeen Democratic and 46 Republicans seats lean in one direction but have the potential to fall in the other. By numbers, Republicans are more vulnerable; though note that only 15 Republicans were elected in 2016 with majorities under 10 percent. It’s a long way to November 2018 and much will happen before then. But it is still a long odds bet to think of a House controlled by Democrats in 2018.

The Senate is more problematic. For the past months, we have watched the Senate Republicans try to deal with their narrow majority. Everything (think of the votes on “repealing and replacing” Obamacare) depends on the votes of just one or two senators.

Senators are elected for six years, and one third stand for re-election every two years — unlike the House, where the entire population is up for election every two years. It works out that in 2018, of the 33 seats being contested, 25 are held by Democrats (including two independents who usually vote with the Democrats) and only eight are held by Republicans. Three of the Democratic Senate seats are now viewed as toss-ups and four as leaning, while only one Republican seat is viewed as a toss up and one leaning.

So, seven Democratic seats but only two Republican seats are seen now at least as actually competitive. (For what it’s worth, recall that 10 of the 25 Senate seats held by Democrats are in states that voted for Trump.) Again, it’s a long way out, but at the moment, odds that the Democrats can re-take the Senate are still pretty slim. Indeed, as of now, the odds have to be as great that the Republicans will increase their Senate majority.

The game has become more interesting. The trial of Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, has begun on charges that his friend bribed him to settle disputes for the government. It’s a complicated case but the bottom line is if Menendez resigns from the Senate or is expelled because he is convicted or sufficiently disgraced, then Republican governor and Trump doormat Chris Christie surely would name a Republican in his place — that’s the risk until January 2018, anyway, after which Christie’s successor, likely a Democrat, would take office and name a Democrat to replace Menendez.

Don’t you love American politics?   

The Democrats have a huge task to accomplish if they are to have any hope of taking back the House or, indeed, of defending their position in the Senate. Going back to national polls, the only thing Americans dislike more than the Republican Party is the Democratic Party, and its national leaders, especially Nancy Pelosi, fare as poorly as Republican leaders.

What is particularly concerning to Democratic leaders is that polls currently suggest that widespread dislike of Trump has not encouraged anti-Trumpers to vote. The propensity of anti-Trump constituencies to vote remains significantly lower than that of Trump supporters.  

While it’s easy to make fun of Trump or to allow oneself to be caught up in anti-Trump righteous indignation, this has not so far won back voters outside of densely Democratic centres, nor is it likely to do so in future.