Looking beyond the November victory
Donald Trump may surpass expectations
Having upended conventional wisdom this November, Donald Trump may do so again in 2018. With Republicans losing seats in Mr. Trump’s upset victory, Democrats may be envisioning big gains in his first midterm election. Yet despite negative results in recent Democratic presidents’ first midterms, there are important reasons to not expect the same for Mr. Trump and Republicans in two years.
American politics ebbs and flows. When a party’s candidate wins the presidency, he generally aides his party’s congressional candidates too. Two years later, without a popular presidential candidate atop the ticket
— and with a president often less popular from governing’s rigors — the party’s candidates suffer.
The last two Democratic presidents exemplified this pattern.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suffered massive losses in Congress in their first midterms. In 1994, Democrats lost 9 Senate seats and 54 House seats, giving Republicans their first full control of Congress since the 1950s. In 2010, Democrats lost six Senate seats and 64 House seats, and while not gaining full control, Republicans gained their largest House total since President Hoover.
Interestingly, George W. Bush did not follow this pattern. In 2003, Republicans gained 8 House and 1 Senate seat. There is more to this counterintuitive result than the aftereffect of 2001’s 9/11 attacks. Those reasons may well aid Mr. Trump and Republicans in 2018.
First, Mr. Clinton (258 House and 57 Senate seats) and Mr. Obama (257 House and 59 Senate seats) had large congressional majorities when they won. Effectively, they lost more because they had more opportunity to lose. Neither Mr. Trump (241 House and 52 Senate seats) nor Mr. Bush (220 House and 50 Senate seats) have that opportunity.
Republicans are also overwhelmingly dominant at the state level, the political organizations of which only help in congressional races. Republicans hold 31 governorships to Democrats’ 18, and a 30-12 advantage in controlling state legislatures. Combined, Republicans have total control of 22 states, versus Democrats’ 8.
Mr. Trump also won the popular vote in 30 states. Mr. Trump’s 306 electoral votes make him the first Republican to break 300 since George H.W. Bush. While Mr. Trump did not win every district of these 30 states’ 246 — but did win many districts in the 20 states he lost — this illustrates his potential electoral influence’s breadth.
There is also the much-cited advantage Republicans will have in 2018 Senate races. Of the 33 up, Democrats must defend 25 (10 in states Mr. Trump won) versus Republicans’ 8. That is more slanted than the 24-10 split Republicans faced this year, when they lost 2 seats.
Aside from favorable numbers, Mr. Trump, and Republicans in general, may have even larger qualitative advantages.
Mr. Trump fits more closely with America’s center-right ideological tilt than either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Obama. According to CNN exit polling, 39 percent of respondents identified themselves as conservative and 35 percent as moderate. Only 26 percent identified themselves as liberal.
Large congressional majorities allowed Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama to initially govern from left-of-center. Mr. Clinton tried, although he failed, to enact “Clinton Care” and was successful in enacting a large tax hike. Mr. Obama succeeded in enacting Obamacare. Not surprisingly, both paid a heavy price in their first midterms.
However in contrast to Mr. Clinton, who moved toward the center after his midterm debacle, Mr. Obama continued to go left. He repeatedly circumvented Congress, using executive orders and an expansive vision of the presidency’s powers. While that may come back to haunt Democrats once Mr. Trump inherits these newly expanded powers, Mr. Trump may already be reaping a benefit by simply not following Mr. Obama’s ideological direction.
Rasmussen polling (released Dec. 16) shows Mr. Trump’s favorability rating now even at 47 percent. While not stratospheric, it is well above his 39 percent October level.
Two other factors also favor Mr. Trump and Republicans. The nation’s most important domestic variable, the economy, is almost perfectly placed for Mr. Trump. It has been neither memorably good, nor memorably bad. Imminently forgettable, it will not take much to make it look respectable.
Finally, presidents are not judged in a vacuum; they are compared to the political alternative. Although early, Mr. Trump could not have received a better housewarming
Although early, Mr. Trump could not have received a better house-warming gift than the whiny liberal opposition thus far confronting him.
gift than the whiny liberal opposition thus far confronting him. From cry-ins to civil disturbances, they have elevated Mr. Trump by default.
And his opposition may well not be done being a favorable comparison for him. According to Rasmussen (released Nov. 18), 54 percent of Democrats want their party to be more like Mr. Sanders than Mrs, Clinton. While reflecting the strong support Mr. Sanders received throughout the primaries, aiming to imitate the candidate who effectively finished third in the presidential race is not the best way to become number one.
There are clear trends in American politics. Outsiders generally win (the last “insider” to win was George H.W. Bush in 1988), but once inside the White House, governing takes its toll. Popularity ebbs as expectation gives way to disappointment. The first opportunity to register this disillusionment is congressional elections two years later.
Mr. Trump may well buck this trend. There has not been an “outsider” like Mr. Trump and he may be such an outsider that he governs more like one than those of the past. But even absent that, there are numerous and powerful reasons to believe Mr. Trump and Republicans may not suffer in two years as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama did. If so, TMr. rump may actually get a second wind in his first term’s second half.