A sitting president of the United States is usually the person who drives political conversation. Former presidents tend to be an afterthought.
But even as we stand more than six months into Joe Biden’s administration, the President is fighting for attention with his predecessor, Donald Trump, to a degree not seen in recent history. The impact of this dynamic could upend expectations about the midterm elections.
Dominating cable news mentions was one of the reasons Biden and Trump won their respective nominations before becoming president.
In the month of July, Biden and Trump have been running about equally in mentions on cable news.
This is really unusual. Four years ago in July, Trump was getting mentioned on cable more than Barack Obama by a 9:1 ratio. Eight years before that, Obama was getting mentioned more on cable than his predecessor, George W. Bush, by a similar margin.
Part of what is happening is that Trump is getting more cable news mentions than usual for a former president. And Biden, for his part, has had his name uttered on cable news far less than Trump did in July 2017.
The attention Trump has commanded isn’t just a cable news phenomenon. We see an exaggerated version of it in Google trends as well.
Trump has actually been searched more often than Biden on Google by about a 3:2 ratio during the last 30 days.
Again, this is an outlier in recent history. Searches for Trump were more than 10 times higher than searches for Obama at this point in 2017. And back in 2009, searches for Obama beat searches for Bush by more than a 10:1 margin.
Like with cable news mentions, Trump getting searched so much more relative to Biden is partially because Trump is getting searched a lot for a former president and partially because Biden isn’t getting searched anywhere near the levels Trump was during this point in his presidency.
We see how much Trump still dominates the political mindset in the real world. The media tracks his endorsements in political races with a close eye. Trump’s thoughts on pieces of legislation continue to make news.
Put another way: Trump matters.
Of course, mattering and helping the Republican Party are two very different things.
Opposition parties generally want the political focus on the current president. Few election traditions are as regular as the president’s party losing seats in a midterm election. One of the drivers of seat loss for the president’s party losing seats is differential turnout. Members of the president’s party are less motivated to vote when they control the White House.
The traditional midterm penalty may hold regardless of Trump being in the news so much. He could drop out of the news cycle as we approach November 2022. There’s still a long way to go.
But we honestly don’t know what might happen when the current occupant of the White House is fighting for media attention with the former president – especially, when Trump continues to falsely claim that he won the last election. It could change the turnout dynamic.
The limited polling we have at this point has Democrats saying they are as likely as Republicans to vote in 2022. An Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in June showed that about the same percentage of Democrats (63%) as Republicans (64%) said they were certain to vote in 2022. An average of other polling generally confirms that Democrats are about as motivated as Republicans to vote.
This doesn’t look like the polling with concern to turnout at this point in either 2009 or 2013 for the upcoming midterm, when there was a Democratic president. Republicans usually have a clear turnout advantage in midterms with a Democratic president.
The pattern in special elections during the Biden administration has not pointed to a big shift toward the Republicans just yet. That’s very much unlike what was happening in 2017 at this time.
And remember, Democrats were able to pick up two Senate seats in Georgia in January. Republicans didn’t have a turnout advantage you might expect with an incoming Democratic president.
We’ll have to keep an eye on these metrics as we approach the midterms. But it seems possible that Trump may continue to make history.