Donald Trump insists the GOP’s midterm election shellacking had nothing to do with him. Things will be different, he says, when his name is actually on the ballot in 2020.
While it’s true that most presidents who see their party suffer major losses in their first midterm election get reelected anyway, Trump isn’t most presidents — and there are lots of blaring-red warning lights in this month’s election results for his bid for a second term.
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Unlike most of his predecessors, he’s been persistently unpopular, with approval ratings mired in the 40-percent range — so far, he’s the only president in the modern era whose job approval ratings have never been over 50 percent, according to Gallup.
Some of Democrats’ biggest gains came in the states that powered Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And while a president’s base has stayed home in previous midterm elections, leading to losses, the record turnout in this year’s races suggests 2018 was more like a 2016 re-run than Trump voters standing on the sidelines.
Thus far, even Trump loyalists in the party haven’t seen the president expand his electoral base beyond core Republicans.
“This is now the party of Donald Trump. I read articles saying the Republican Party has merged with the Trump coalition — they have no choice. Trump voters own the Republican Party. That’s consolidated,” said John McLaughlin, who was part of the team of pollsters working on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “The bad part is they haven’t broadened [his coalition]. They haven’t gotten his job approval over 50 percent, like Reagan. We haven’t done that.”
Republicans have taken solace in the examples of recent presidents who saw their party drubbed in their first midterm, only to win a resounding reelection victory two years later.
Barack Obama’s Democratic Party lost 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats in 2010, but Obama defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012. Republicans flipped both the House, where they netted 52 seats, and Senate in 1994, but Bill Clinton slaughtered former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996. Ronald Reagan’s GOP lost 26 House seats in 1982 — and picked up a seat in the Senate — but Reagan nearly swept the Electoral College against former Vice President Walter Mondale two years later, winning a 49-state landslide.
Reagan’s example has been a balm for some Republicans, especially given the similarities in the House-Senate split decisions — Republicans gained at least one Senate seat this year, pending the results of next week’s special-election runoff in Mississippi. But in order to repeat his feat, Trump’s approval rating would have to rise to heretofore-unseen levels: Reagan was in the low-40s around the 1982 midterms and improved to 58 percent in the Gallup poll immediately before the 1984 election.
Throughout the campaign, even the most optimistic Republican pollsters were modeling a turnout rate far higher than in previous midterm elections. And that’s borne out in the election results: As of Thursday, more than 111.7 million votes had been counted in House elections nationwide, according to the Cook Political Report.
Estimates are that the final count will be around 113 million — a lot closer to the 129.8 million votes that were cast in House races in the presidential year of 2016 than 2014’s paltry turnout of 79 million votes.
Republicans made gains in 2010 because — in large part — the coalition that elected then-President Barack Obama didn’t come out to vote in his midterms. Turnout dropped from 120.7 million in 2008, to 86.9 million in 2010.
“All the data indicated that voters were really pumped [this year] — that there was an excitement and energy that we didn’t really see in 2010 and 2012,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who worked for Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. “What you see in this election is not only can Democrats turn their votes out, but Trump demonstrated an extraordinary ability to turn his votes out, too.”
Trump has argued, however, that many voters who support him stayed home on Election Day.
“I didn’t run. I wasn’t running. My name wasn’t on the ballot,” Trump told “Fox News Sunday,” in an interview recorded last week. “There are many people that think, ‘I don’t like Congress,’ that like me a lot. I get it all the time: ‘Sir, I will never vote unless you were on the ballot.’ I get it all the time.
“People are saying, ‘Sir, I will never vote unless you’re on the ballot. I say, ‘No, no, go and vote,’” he added. “As much as I try and convince people to go vote, I’m not on the ballot.”
There were some bright spots in the wreckage for Republicans who, besides expanding their slim Senate majority also held Florida’s governorship and ousted Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by the narrowest of margins. They retained the governorship in Ohio, though Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won reelection. Iowa GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds also won a full term, but Democrats beat two of the state’s three Republican members of Congress.
But the biggest advances for Democrats were made in the three states that put Trump over the top in the Electoral College in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats won the governorships in all three — wresting away an open seat in Michigan and defeating two-term incumbent Scott Walker in Wisconsin, while holding Pennsylvania. Democratic incumbent senators in all three won reelection without breaking much of a sweat.
Democrats also won six more House elections across Michigan and Pennsylvania than they had captured in 2016, helped in large part by a new congressional map in Pennsylvania.
“There’s simply no evidence that those states are crying out for more Trump,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for then-Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
The map could expand beyond those three states, too. Mellman added that the Florida results were “essentially a tie,” and Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema’s victory in Arizona — she’s the first Democrat to win a Senate race there since 1988 — is a sign that the state “is likely to be a significant battleground” in 2020.
Pollsters from both parties say Trump’s chances of recovering depend, in part, on improving his approval rating, which he’s thus far failed to do. In the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 45 percent of registered voters approved of the job Trump is doing as president — equal to his performance in two separate exit polls of 2018 voters, and consistent with the past year, when his approval rating has ranged between 40 and 47 percent.
“Trump’s approval rating has been historically very low,” said Mellman. “Other presidents have been as well, but their approval ratings have been more malleable. His is sort of stuck.”
Lynn Vavreck, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and a member of the advisory board for the American National Election Studies, said she’s skeptical public opinion of Trump will change markedly in the next two years.
“It’s so divided by partisanship,” said Vavreck. “Republicans approve of him, and Democrats don’t. And that’s pretty much the floor and the ceiling. There’s not a lot of room for movement, unless Republicans turn on him, or Democrats learn to like him. I don’t see either of things happening.”
But pollsters and experts also urge caution against assuming the die is cast against Trump. Presidents typically see their party lose seats in their first midterms, and most presidents get reelected.
“It [usually] borders on the foolish to draw a straight line from the midterms to the next general,” Mellman said.
In 2020, not only can the president run against the new House Democratic majority — he’ll have an opponent with whom to contrast himself.
“Be careful of extrapolating 2018 success into what it means for 2020 because it just doesn’t fit,” Newhouse said. “2018 was more of a referendum on President Trump. 2020 is going to be more of a choice. And Trump does much better in a choice battle when he has someone to run against.”