GOP trip­ping on Trump’s coat­tails, bigly

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANA MIL­BANK Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

Pres­i­dent Trump is get­ting his wish: It’s all about him. The elec­tion, that is. New ev­i­dence in­di­cates that the midterm elec­tions in seven weeks will be the clear­est ref­er­en­dum on a pres­i­dent in at least 80 years.

But while it may de­light the nar­cis­sis­tic pres­i­dent that the 2018 midterms are en­tirely about him, this is pre­cisely what his fel­low Repub­li­cans were hop­ing to avoid. With Trump’s sup­port at his­toric lows — 60 per­cent over­all dis­ap­prove of his per­for­mance, in­clud­ing 59 per­cent of in­de­pen­dents — Repub­li­cans scram­bling to hold the House and Se­nate have been strug­gling in vain to make the elec­tion about other is­sues: tax cuts, Democrats’ per­sonal foibles — any­thing to avoid the elec­tion be­ing about Trump. This has failed, bigly. Midterm elec­tions have gen­er­ally come to be seen as the elec­torate’s re­ac­tion to a pres­i­dency. But this one is on a whole dif­fer­ent level. “In no pre­vi­ous elec­tion,” Gary Ja­cob­son, a Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who crunched the numbers, tells me, “has the link­age be­tween opin­ions of the pres­i­dent and how peo­ple are likely to vote been as strong as this time.” Ja­cob­son’s re­search goes back to the 1930s, be­fore which there was no polling and there­fore no abil­ity to com­pare.

Ja­cob­son, who pre­sented his find­ings to the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence As­so­ci­a­tion re­cently and pro­vided me with up­dated data, found in 93.1 per­cent of cases this year, vot­ers’ ap­proval or dis­ap­proval of the pres­i­dent is cor­re­lated with their planned votes for or against the pres­i­dent’s party in House races. That’s an all-time high. It av­er­aged 86 per­cent in re­cent elec­tions, 74 per­cent in the 1980s and 1990s.

And it’s more than a ca­sual cor­re­la­tion. Us­ing re­gres­sion anal­y­sis, Ja­cob­son de­ter­mined that for ev­ery per­cent­age point move­ment in Trump’s job ap­proval rat­ing, sup­port for Repub­li­can House can­di­dates in the midterm elec­tions move by 0.75 per­cent­age points — the high­est ef­fect ever seen. For Barack Obama, it was 0.50 per­cent­age points. For Ge­orge W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton, closer to 0.25 per­cent­age points. There isn’t as much data about Se­nate vot­ing, but the re­la­tion­ship has been vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal.

This has been caused by a com­bi­na­tion of his­tor­i­cal trends and Trump’s uniquely po­lar­iz­ing sta­tus.

Ja­cob­son, work­ing with data from Gallup, the Amer­i­can Na­tional Elec­tion Stud­ies and oth­ers, writes that as re­cently as 1990, there was only a 31-point dif­fer­ence be­tween how Repub­li­cans and Democrats rated the pres­i­dent’s per­for­mance in midterm elec­tion years. That jumped to a roughly 70-point gap dur­ing the midterms of 2006, 2010 and 2014. This year? Seven­tyeight per­cent.

At the same time, party loy­alty — the ten­dency of Democrats and Repub­li­cans to vote for their own party’s con­gres­sional can­di­date — has grown from the mid-70s in the 1980s to 90 per­cent in the past decade. This year? Ninety-six per­cent.

This does not nec­es­sar­ily mean a Demo­cratic wave, or even a vic­tory. Democrats now lead by about 9 points in the generic House bal­lot — which asks re­spon­dents which party they would vote for in a con­gres­sional elec­tion. But be­cause of ger­ry­man­der­ing and the dis­tort­ing ef­fects of ur­ban dis­tricts with Demo­cratic su­per­ma­jori­ties, Democrats would need to win be­tween 53 per­cent and 55 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, Ja­cob­son cal­cu­lates, to pick up the nec­es­sary two dozen House seats. And this year’s Se­nate map is even more daunt­ing.

But Trump’s un­pop­u­lar­ity seems to off­set the ben­e­fit Repub­li­cans should get from the strong econ­omy. Us­ing re­sults from pre­vi­ous midterms and fac­tor­ing in the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval and the growth in real dis­pos­able in­come, Ja­cob­son re­ports that in con­di­tions close to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion — 2 per­cent in­come growth and Trump’s ap­proval at 40 per­cent — Repub­li­cans would, by his­toric mod­els, lose 33 House seats.

Repub­li­cans in com­pet­i­tive races are in a bind. Among in­de­pen­dent vot­ers they need to win, Trump is a pariah. But among the Repub­li­can vot­ers they need to turn out in high numbers, Trump has 78 per­cent ap­proval.

Their dilemma was ev­i­dent on Thurs­day when Trump made the out­ra­geous and false claim that the of­fi­cial death toll of 2,975 from last year’s storms in Puerto Rico was in­flated by Democrats “to make me look as bad as pos­si­ble.” (Even storm deaths are all about him.) Del­i­cately, Repub­li­can can­di­dates in Florida, who had been try­ing to win over Puerto Ri­can vot­ers, tried to step away from Trump. Gov. Rick Scott, run­ning for Se­nate, tweeted: “I dis­agree.” Rep. Ron DeSan­tis, run­ning for gover­nor, is­sued a sim­i­lar state­ment.

Good luck with that. Trump, later in the day, re­peated his in­sult­ing and bo­gus claims.

As Trump con­tin­ues to re­pel, opin­ions of him drop and sup­port for a Demo­cratic Congress rises. It has the mak­ings of a wave, but one that could re­cede be­fore the elec­tion. We are des­tined for one of two out­comes: a mas­sive re­pu­di­a­tion of Trump or an un­think­able af­fir­ma­tion of him.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

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