Don’t expect Donald Trump to cop to a “thumpin’ ” or a “shellacking” if the midterm elections turn into a triumph for Democrats.
The President, even as he races around the country animating rowdy campaign crowds and launching a full-on media blitz, is making one thing clear: if Republicans go down on November 6, it’s not on him.
Like much of Trump’s unorthodox presidency, his strategy is laced with contradictions.
It also raises the question of whether he can credibly argue that his presidency is on the ballot to get his supporters out to vote and then turn around and say his record has nothing to do with a possible Republican disaster.
But he’s going to try. Thursday begins a week-long stretch where the President will hold five campaign rallies in five different states – he starts Thursday night in Montana and then goes to Arizona on Friday, Nevada on Saturday, Texas on Monday and Wisconsin on Wednesday – in the span of seven days. All of the states have competitive Senate races where Republican candidates are locked in tight races or hoping to unseat a Democratic incumbent.
He heads out on the trail looking to change the subject after facing sharp criticism for his tame response to the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Earlier this month, the President tried to explain to his supporters that although he is not personally running for office on November 6, they should treat the election as if it’s 2016 or his re-election race in 2020.
“I’m not on the ticket. But Congress is on the ticket and I try and tell my people – ‘that’s the same thing as me in a sense. That’s the same thing, think of it as the same thing as me,’ ” Trump said in a speech in the White House Rose Garden on October 1.
While he’s doing everything he can to make the election about himself – touting a two-year record he says is the best of any president ever – Trump is also laying the groundwork for a face-saving operation if things go wrong. He even warned GOP supporters in a recent Fox Business Network interview that they would only have themselves to blame if they don’t show up and back Republicans because they would see their wealth cut by Democrats.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, the President made clear that he would not be prepared to shoulder responsibility should Republicans lose the House.
“No, I think I’m helping people,” he said, listing successful election year endorsements that did not take into account the fact that picking favorites for Republican base voters among whom he’s wildly popular is not the same as a national showdown with Democrats.
His answer to the AP made one thing clear – there will be no post-election mea culpa session like the ordeals to which his pained predecessors George W. Bush (thumpin’) and Barack Obama (shellacking) felt obligated to endure after their midterm defeats.
Heads I win, tails you lose
The President’s heads I win, tails you lose strategy in which he is simultaneously claiming credit and deflecting blame is one that only a politician like Trump, who is content living in conflicting realities and thinks nothing of denying something he has been caught on tape saying out loud, could attempt with a straight face.
It’s consistent with his own refusal ever to admit wrongdoing or a mistake which has played out throughout his presidency. And it allows him to retain his self-image as a winner – at least until he faces voters in his 2020 election race.
But it’s also an approach that flies in the face of the political reality that his own unpopularity is a millstone for Republicans in competitive House seats, especially in suburban areas outside cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, where his populist nationalism doesn’t connect as well as in the deep red territory where he holds rallies.
And the President’s rock bottom rating among women voters also threatens to hamper Republicans hoping to hang on to at risk House seats. In a recent CNN poll, white female likely voters with a college degree favored Democrats over the GOP by 67% to 31%.
While Trump remains highly popular among Republicans, his approval rating of 41% in a recent CNN poll is deep in the danger area that history suggests all but guarantees a midterm election bloody nose for a President.
In 2010, Obama’s approval rating as measured by Gallup was 45% and his Democrats lost a whopping 63 House seats in the midterms.
Bush was at 38% at the time of his second midterm election in 2006, and saw Republicans lose 30 seats. Ronald Reagan was close to Trump’s number – at 42% when he faced his first midterms in 1982 and the GOP dropped 28 seats.
While the Senate picture looks much better for Republicans, a repeat of midterm history this year would mean Republicans would lose their House majority with potentially grave implications for Trump’s presidency, since Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take over.
2016 all over again
In many ways, Trump, though the most unconventional president in decades, is facing a problem common to his predecessors: He’s trying to transfer his own popularity among grass roots activists, that lifted him to the White House, to far less charismatic lawmakers.
That’s one reason – along with the fact that the President never seems as liberated or as happy as when he’s on stage – that he has been holding huge stadium rallies for months that recall the displays he put on in the home stretch two years ago.
The President is convinced that he is seeing the same kind of response ahead of the midterms.
“I was going out and making speeches and I was getting tens of thousands of people … honestly it feels very much like it did in ’16,” Trump told the AP.
But any subsequent argument that Trump makes that he is irrelevant to Republican losses in November will also be undermined by clear evidence that his turbulent presidency is a major motivating factor for voters heading to the polls.
A Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday found that the number of voters who said the President was a factor in their choice is the highest it has been since with Reagan in 1982.
Six-in-10 registered voters said the President is a factor in the poll taken in September, 37% who pledged to oppose him and 23% who’ll be voting to support him.
The number of people who will effectively vote against the President was beaten only by Bush in 2006 when 39% of registered voters said they would use their vote against him.
The intensity of voter feeling about the President does give him some hope, however, as it raises the prospect that he could defy precedent and recreate that feverish support among the GOP grass roots that confounded pollsters and resulted in his shock victory two years ago.
Certainly, no recent President has done so much to cultivate his base voters, and so little to reach out to everyone else than Trump during his two years in office. If 2016 is any guide, pollsters could have trouble accurately assessing the make-up of the electorate and the intensity of Trump’s supporters.
Although election day is looming, 19 days is an eternity in the politics of the Trump era – in which every day has felt like an October surprise – so it’s not impossible the President manages to engineer some event or controversy that lights a late fire under GOP voters.
The strange duality of this year’s election map might also offer the President a way to declare at least a partial victory on the morning of November 7.
By a quirk of fate, the most competitive Senate seats in this cycle are held by Democrats in states like Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, Florida and Montana, where the President won big in 2016 and where satisfaction with his presidency is high among Democrats.
Republicans hope that the intense confirmation battle won by new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh will send a jolt through their grass roots in such states and that a strong economy could help elsewhere.
There is every chance of a split decision on election day that would reflect the polarization of the nation whereby the Democrats win the House and Republicans keep or even expand their Senate majority – more favorable scenario for the GOP than seemed possible a month ago.
On past form, Trump would not be slow in claiming credit for saving the Senate.