Five months before the midterm elections, predictions that Democrats will ride a “blue wave” to forcefully sweep away GOP control of the House of Representatives have become hopes that a high tide can still bring them a bare majority of 218 seats.
Last week, political analyst Larry Sabato found 211 House seats at least leaning to the Republicans, 198 at least leaning to the Democrats, and 26 toss-ups. If the toss-ups break evenly, Democrats would gain 17 seats, but the GOP would still have a 224-to-211 House majority. What has changed to give Republicans a better-than-fighting chance to hold on?
One explanation is the economy, which may improve President Trump’s approval ratings and affect how voters plan to vote in November. In June 2016, only 32 percent of Americans rated the economy as “good” or “excellent.” Today 62 percent do. The growth rate for President Obama’s last year in office was only 1.6 percent; growth projections for the second quarter of 2018 are north of 4 percent. The stock market is up 25 percent since Trump’s inauguration. Midterm elections that have occurred in a cycle featuring clear economic growth, such as those in 1998 and 1978, have seen the party that occupies the White House doing much better than in years when the economy was struggling.
Nonetheless, President Trump’s drama-prone leadership seems to be contributing to his less-than-stellar polling numbers, which are still upside down. But his favorability ratings have improved. His job approval was only 37 percent in December. The average of polls monitored by RealClearPolitics now has him at just under 43 percent approval, his highest in more than a year. Along with that improvement, Republicans now are only about five to seven points behind in polls that ask voters which party they want to control Congress. That is significantly below the 12.5 percentage point lead that Democrats had in June 2006, the last year they took back control of the House.
MIT political-science professor Charles Stewart, an expert on election data, recently told Vox:
To capture the House, Democrats would have to see the biggest election swing [from presidential election to the next midterm election] in their favor in the entire post–World War II era. And, even then, they would only have a 50–50 chance of taking the House.
I believe a big obstacle they have is that while many people don’t like President Trump, that doesn’t mean they want to reward increasingly left-leaning Democrats at the polls in November. Ron Brownstein of CNN pointed out that in the latest Quinnipiac Poll, 53 percent of college-educated whites disapprove of Trump, but only 47 percent say they plan to vote Democratic in House races. This is “a continuing gap that bears watching,” he tweeted. “Other recent polls also find that gap.”
One explanation of the gap is that some voters don’t want to return to the big-government economic policies of the slow-growth Obama years just because they dislike Trump. Why would someone cut off their nose to spite their face?
For now, Republicans can look forward to a climate in which the economy continues to pick up steam and the public is increasingly bored or unaffected by the Mueller probe.
Of course, surprises are almost a daily occurrence in the Trump administration, and a series of nasty ones could shake up the current situation and again give Democrats a clear advantage. Trump’s trade wars could spook investor and business confidence and lead to economic uncertainty. The probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller could unearth major developments and lead to surprising indictments.
But for now, Republicans can look forward to a climate in which the economy continues to pick up steam and the public is increasingly bored or unaffected by the Mueller probe. Democrats have put all of their chips on mounting “resistance” to President Trump. They may find, however, that they should have spent the months after their stunning 2016 election loss in retooling their party so that it offered an updated, positive message rather than merely the sour rhetoric of an angry #Resistance movement.
By responding to Trump’s provocations and baiting with overheated anger and epithets of their own, Democrats may have turned off just enough voters to keep Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.
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