Democrats may still face ob­sta­cles in midterm elec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

Pres­i­dent Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing is at 38 per­cent. His base is said to be erod­ing. Av­er­age ap­proval of the Repub­li­can­con­trolled Congress is at 16 per­cent. And the pres­i­dent is at war with his party’s lead­ers. For Democrats, what’s not to like? The an­swer isn’t as ob­vi­ous as it might sound.

Trump and the Repub­li­cans have con­cluded one of the least pro­duc­tive first six months of a new pres­i­dency. No sig­na­ture piece of leg­is­la­tion has reached the pres­i­dent’s desk, and the no­table fail­ure to en­act a health­care bill stands as an in­dict­ment against both the pres­i­dent and GOP con­gres­sional lead­ers.

That’s not to say Trump hasn’t had suc­cesses. On some fronts, par­tic­u­larly the reg­u­la­tory roll­back that he and Repub­li­cans have promised, the pres­i­dent has made progress. He has fol­lowed through on his pledge to crack down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion (and now even le­gal im­mi­gra­tion). The tough­ened poli­cies ap­pease his sup­port­ers and alarm his op­po­nents. In other ar­eas, trade for ex­am­ple, his pres­i­dency has been more bold talk than vig­or­ous ac­tion.

With each pres­i­den­tial stum­ble or con­tro­versy, Democrats look to 2018 and an­tic­i­pate sig­nif­i­cant gains. They are vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed to pick up seats in the House, given the his­tory of midterm elec­tions. The ques­tion is how many. A tidal wave of op­po­si­tion to a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, like that of 2006, could sweep Repub­li­cans out of power in the House. But is that in the off­ing?

Democrats see ev­i­dence in polls and fo­cus groups of an elec­torate re­cep­tive to mov­ing in their di­rec­tion. They see en­ergy in the num­ber of can­di­dates will­ing to step for­ward and run for of­fice. They are con­fi­dent that the anger that put so many peo­ple on the streets early in Trump’s pres­i­dency will carry for­ward to the bal­lot box 15 months from now, al­though ev­i­dence about en­thu­si­asm among Democrats and Repub­li­cans of­fers a mixed pic­ture.

But there are other fac­tors that could frus­trate the Democrats, from the state of the econ­omy to ob­sta­cles cre­ated by struc­tural as­pects of a po­lar­ized elec­torate to the pe­cu­liar ways in which the pres­i­dent de­fies or at least con­founds some tra­di­tional mea­sures of pub­lic opin­ion.

It is re­mark­able that the pres­i­dent’s av­er­age ap­proval rat­ing is be­low 40 per­cent at a time when the unem­ploy­ment rate is at a 16-year low and the stocks have hit record highs this sum­mer, at least un­til jit­tery mar­kets re­acted to warnings by the pres­i­dent of pos­si­ble mil­i­tary con­flict with North Korea.

The econ­omy is not soar­ing, as the pres­i­dent of­ten sug­gests. But it re­mains on the path of steady, if slow, growth that marked the Obama years. The ben­e­fits of growth re­main un­even; many Amer­i­cans ei­ther don’t see big­ger pay­checks or don’t feel they are get­ting ahead. Trump prom­ises even more ro­bust growth, a pledge that could be dif­fi­cult to ful­fill.

Demo­cratic strate­gists are aware of the mis­match be­tween the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval and the state of the econ­omy and hope that the midterm elec­tions will be sim­ply a ref­er­en­dum on the pres­i­dent, as first midterms of­ten are. But if there is no sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic re­trench­ment over the com­ing year, the head winds buf­fet­ing Repub­li­cans could be re­duced.

The pres­i­dent’s ap­proval is lower than any past pres­i­dent af­ter 200-plus days in of­fice, a few points lower than for­mer pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s was at this point in his pres­i­dency. Clin­ton saw his party lose con­trol of the House in 1994.

Democrats hope to see a re­play of the 2006 midterm, when they took ad­van­tage of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush to re­gain con­trol of the House. But be­tween 2006 and to­day, some­thing im­por­tant hap­pened. The shape of con­gres­sional dis­tricts changed and changed in the di­rec­tion of the Repub­li­cans.

Part of this was through redistricting and the suc­cess of Repub­li­cans in the states to draw lines most fa­vor­able to them. Part of it has come through the sort­ing out of the pop­u­la­tion. Democrats are now heav­ily clus­tered in ur­ban ar­eas; Repub­li­cans are spread more evenly else­where. That makes it more dif­fi­cult for Democrats to com­pete in some con­gres­sional dis­tricts.

Add to that the re­al­ity that in a red-blue na­tion, red ar­eas have be­come red­der and blue ar­eas bluer. Es­pe­cially in Se­nate races, that tilts the field to­ward the Repub­li­cans.

Demo­cratic strate­gists with long ex­pe­ri­ence in House races say that the over­all en­vi­ron­ment looks as good or bet­ter now than it did at this point in the 2006 cy­cle, by which they mean the pres­i­dent’s stand­ing, the strength or weak­ness of Repub­li­can in­cum­bents and the qual­ity of Demo­cratic re­cruits. But the shape of the map is chal­leng­ing, more so than in 2006.

David Wasser­man of the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port noted this past week that the pro-Repub­li­can bias of the House and Se­nate puts Democrats at an ob­vi­ous dis­ad­van­tage now and pos­si­bly well into the fu­ture.

“Even if Democrats were to win ev­ery sin­gle 2018 House and Se­nate race for seats rep­re­sent­ing places that Hil­lary Clin­ton won or that Trump won by less than three per­cent­age points — a pretty good midterm by his­tor­i­cal stan­dards — they could still fall short of the House ma­jor­ity and lose five Se­nate seats,” he wrote.

He said that, while Trump lost the pop­u­lar vote in 2016 by 2.1 per­cent­age points, Repub­li­cans won the me­dian House seat by 3.4 points and the me­dian Se­nate seat by 3.6 points, the widest dif­fer­ence for the Se­nate in his­tory and tied for the widest House dif­fer­ence.

“That doesn’t mean Democrats can’t win the House and Se­nate back,” he added. “They won con­trol of both cham­bers in 2006 de­spite a Repub­li­can bias that year, for ex­am­ple. But they’re start­ing from a truly his­toric geo­graphic dis­ad­van­tage, even with the po­lit­i­cal wind at their back.”

An­other dif­fer­ence to­day com­pared with 2006 is that par­ti­san lines have hard­ened even fur­ther, mean­ing the num­ber of swing vot­ers has been re­duced. Midterm elec­torates tend to fa­vor Repub­li­cans — the vot­ers are on av­er­age older and some­times in­clude a smaller per­cent­age of mi­nor­ity vot­ers than in pres­i­den­tial years. Democrats must off­set that dis­ad­van­tage by cap­tur­ing a big­ger per­cent­age of in­de­pen­dent or swing vot­ers. But fewer vot­ers to­day are gen­uinely in­de­pen­dent.

John Lapp, a Demo­cratic strate­gist who was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee when the party cap­tured the House in 2006, said, “I think the bat­tle­field will in­crease for Democrats. But there is much more par­ti­san­ship than in 2006. There were more per­suad­able vot­ers then. It’s much, much tougher to per­suade that tinier sliver of per­suad­able votes.”

One other wild card is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Trump’s num­bers and the GOP’s fate in the fall of 2018. His ap­proval ratings are so low that Repub­li­cans should brace for sub­stan­tial losses, big enough to cost them the House. Also, his cur­rent dis­tem­per to­ward his party’s lead­ers could pose turnout is­sues next year.

But Trump’s num­bers some­times defy con­ven­tional anal­y­sis. On Elec­tion Day last Novem­ber, about 6 in 10 vot­ers said they did not think Trump was qual­i­fied to be pres­i­dent. Enough of them cast their votes for him to make him pres­i­dent.

Lastly, but not in­signif­i­cantly, there are the Democrats’ in­ter­nal prob­lems — the di­vi­sions be­tween the left wing of the party and more mod­er­ate pro­gres­sives, and the re­lated chal­lenge of de­vel­op­ing a mes­sage with broader ap­peal. Democrats could do well in 2018 with noth­ing more than an an­tiT-rump mes­sage, but that might be short­sighted.

Democrats can win the pop­u­lar vote for pres­i­dent by rolling up huge mar­gins in Cal­i­for­nia and New York and big cities else­where, as they did in 2016. They can’t win the House and par­tic­u­larly the Se­nate that way. They need a mes­sage that ap­peals beyond their base, and they need more can­di­dates who can com­pete ef­fec­tively in less friendly ter­ri­tory.

RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

An at­tendee dur­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia in July 2016. A good econ­omy and struc­tural ob­sta­cles could un­der­mine Demo­cratic hopes for gains in the midterm elec­tion.

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