Conventional wisdom and media hopes are now combining to warn us of what is shaping up as a Trump wipeout in the 2018 midterms.
Certainly, presidents with an approval rating below 50 percent usually lose more than 30 seats in the House. That crash would be more than enough to produce a Democratic majority and thus would ensure an impeachment proceeding designed to paralyze the remainder of Trump’s first term.
In the Senate, the Democrats have three times as many seats to defend (and lots of them in Trump-won states). Yet recently they are gaining confidence that they can flip enough races to deadlock or even win the Senate. The now-orthodox narrative about the midterm elections is increasingly hyped by the media as a “blowout” or “tsunami.”
Yet the dilemma is not just that we are ten months out from the election and relative party popularity is already gyrating, but that there are lots of landmark developments in play that we usually do not experience in any midterm election.
The first, of course, is Trump and the polls. No one knows whether the “Trump phenomenon” of 3–5 percent underreporting in the polls is still valid. The Rasmussen poll has Trump at 45 percent, about 5 percent higher than the gold-standard RealClearPolitics average of 40 percent — analogous to the Election Day outlier and often-scoffed-at polls by USC/Los Angeles Times and Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP. Anecdotally, most can attest that colleagues and friends still usually look both ways before whispering, “Wow, Trump is doing great.” It may be a mass phenomenon that, for some, expressing hesitation about Trump or even virtue-signaling about his excesses serves as psychological penance for voting for him.
Conventional wisdom trusts the 40 percent average; by 2016 unorthodox thinking, however, one might argue for the 45 percent outlier. But remember again, we are in surreal, even revolutionary, times when what is certain is now suspect, and what is absolutely impossible is feasible.
No one ever imagined that the take-the-knee NFL protests would have tanked viewership and attendance by over 10 percent and shaken the very foundations of a multibillion-dollar industry. No one ever dreamed that many in the illustrious liberal aparat would be attrited in just days by long-known but suddenly disclosed creepy behavior — John Conyers, Al Franken, Mark Halperin, Matt Lauer, Ryan Lizza, Charlie Rose, Jann Wenner, and Leon Wieseltier. We had never seen late-night television turn into nonstop political ranting. We have no idea whether comedians’ spiked ratings represent the new normal or have earned a quiet but simmering backlash.
In short, we have no idea whether the unprecedented hatred for a president, evident in mainstreamed assassination chic and 90 percent negative press coverage, will reach a saturation point and turn off voters. Or will it create a pet-rocket/hula-hoop fad effect, where not voting for Trump becomes the correct, career-advancing, and socially acceptable act?
Nor does anyone fathom the effect of the booming economy on the midterm election, especially an economy whose potential for rapid growth has not been seen in a generation. Conventional wisdom wars with itself. On the one hand, unpopular presidents usually lose the midterm elections. On the other, “It’s the economy, stupid” logic of 3 percent GDP growth undergirds a lot of political arithmetic.
We have never seen a stock market boom like the present one. Nor has the U.S. experienced all at once record gas and oil production, peacetime unemployment sinking to 4 percent or lower, and near-record small-business and consumer confidence.
Is it more likely that current economic trends will peak and lead to stagnation or even a bust by November — or continue with even more robust growth? Was the U.S. economy under Obama sorely underperforming and psychosocially repressed? And if so, do we really have any idea what the “animal spirits” of American entrepreneurialism are capable of when they are let loose — and are unabashedly praised rather than deprecated?
The new tax code in the ensuing months might ensure more take-home pay for the middle class and fatten further its 401K accounts. If GDP growth increases and illegal immigration keeps falling, job growth among minorities may continue at near-record levels. An unprecedented economic boom might make anti-Trump voters simply stay home, to square the circle of publicly not liking Trump the messenger while privately very much liking Trump’s message. Or it could be that a 3 percent growth in annualized GDP won’t be enough for the controversial Trump; he might require 4 percent or even above for voters to value the economy over all other considerations. Trump’s recent bump in the polls occurred at a time of both strong economic news and an anti-Trump news blitz.
There are other known unknowns.
First, no one can foresee the ultimate results of the warring investigations by Robert Mueller’s team and by the House Intelligence Committee. Will Mueller synchronize more indictments with the November elections and try to indict a Trump family member on some sort of financial impropriety or obstruction allegation? Would it even matter if the charge had little to do with Trump or Mueller’s original directive?
What would happen over the next few months if it turned out that Trump was not only prescient, in tweeting about his ‘tapped’ wires, but that he also understated the extent of the prior administration’s violations of civil liberties?
Or instead, will we finally learn the full story of the Fusion GPS–Steele dossier and discover that the FBI and Justice Department, the outgoing Obama administration, a toadying media, and the Clinton campaign not only colluded in trafficking with Russian-supplied fibs and fantasies designed to cause chaos in the Trump campaign and transition, but also in many cases violated federal laws by using fraudulent materials to obtain FISA orders so they could improperly surveil U.S. citizens and then unmask and leak the names of those citizens (also illegally), and then use transcripts of such improper intercepts to cook up perjury charges against Trump associates? Could we go from a non-scandal to one of the greatest political scandals of the post-war era? Trump was once widely demonized for supposedly sloppily tweeting that Obama had “wire tapped” him. (“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”) But in political terms, what would happen over the next few months if it turned out that Trump was not only prescient but that he also understated the extent of the prior administration’s violations of civil liberties?
Like the economy, the political ramifications of the pseudo-collusion charges and the Steele dossier remain great unknowns. But in terms of momentum, the disclosures among Mueller investigators of improper workplace behavior, political biases, five months of “lost” text messages on FBI cellphones (coincidentally, texts that congressional overseers were seeking), and the failure to find clear evidence of collusion suggest that the team will become ever more eager to find something — anything — before the election, even as repulsion with the dossier scandal and its purveyors only grows.
Second, we cannot yet calibrate either the political fallout from the recent government shutdown (and perhaps others to come in 2018) or the consequences of the Democratic gambit of basing an electoral campaign on the demonization of Trump, the supposed ogre. Will Trump be able to reframe the recent shutdown as amnesties for illegal aliens trumping pay of U.S. soldiers? Or will progressives win the aftermath with charges of Trump nihilism? We won’t know the full answer for weeks, if not months.
So far, progressives have offered few alternatives to the Trump agenda. Do Democrats want to reinstate Obama tax rates? Cut back on gas and oil production? Restore 60 or more old regulations? Once again close down ANWAR and the Dakota and Keystone pipelines? Do they want claims for unemployment insurance to increase again? Do they want to see illegal-alien crossings rise to 2015 levels? Follow California’s example and expand sanctuary status to cover not just cities but entire states? Issue blanket amnesties?
The Democratic agenda, from local commissioner races to the Senate, appears to be a reductive “We are not Trump!” That might prove a winning message when the president polls below 40 percent, but perhaps not so much if he should reach 45 percent.
Trump’s critics call support for his agenda a “Faustian bargain,” as if one sells one’s soul to see a national-security team of Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson, Pompeo, and Haley rather than Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and John Kerry. But many Trump supporters keep their eye on the Supreme Court and cabinet agencies and do not see chaos, controversy, or invective but rather the EPA, Education, Justice, and Interior making long-needed reforms unlikely to have occurred under a Clinton or perhaps even a McCain or Romney administration. Again, the choice is not Trump’s tweeting or not tweeting, but the progressive alternative to what is currently going on at the cabinet and federal-court level.
Finally, no one knows the exact electoral effect of the rallies, tweets, and leaked broadsides from the mercurial Trump. His recent slight climb in the polls seems to be based on good economic news that overshadows his polarizing language. There are lots of contradictory exegeses:
1) The key to Trump’s success is his “don’t tread on me” pushback. The more he lashes out, even if crudely so, the more his frustrated and anti-PC base will turn out, in hopes that he will persist in his conservative agendas. And the base is the key in low-turnout midterm elections. In other words, the Trump megaphone rallies those who will vote and turns off some who might not.
2) Trump’s tweets and scatology and profanity have reached a saturation point. Independents, women especially, finally shrug, “I’m doing really well and like the agenda, but I’m also really embarrassed about the cause of my good fortune.” They therefore turn on Trump. Meanwhile, backsliding progressives could become energized and show ups at the polls at 7 a.m. to vote against the perceived Prince of Darkness.
3) Trump’s tweets and scatology and profanity — and the media hysteria about them — finally do reach satiety, but of a different sort: The offended shrug, say “So what,” and vote on other issues.
4) Trump craftily prunes back his commentary over the next ten months and instead lets his record speak for itself. His base regrets his abstinence but understands the logic of being more presidential, while swing voters hear only the continued media hysteria but not the supposed trigger points for it.
In sum, conventional wisdom, citing past presidential midterms, claims that Trump will lose the House but may hang on in the Senate and stagger through the next two years.
Zealots celebrate that he will lose both and thereby implode his presidency.
We are back to the future, at ten months out from November 2018. That is, in truth, we are back to about 5 p.m., November 7, 2016 — with all sorts of supposed sureties but absolutely no certainty of what will happen next.