Midterm madness — or Trump’s last stand?

Could the US midterm elections change the course of Trump’s presidency?

Andrew Stuttaford

Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice. The battle over his confirmation may not have been forgotten by election day (© Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There are journalistic assignments that should be refused, not as a matter of principle but out of basic common sense. Making predictions about American politics in the age of Trump is one of them. That Donald Trump won the Republican nomination was surprising. That he ended up in the White House was — well, a strong enough what-the-hell adjective does not exist (I did not expect Trump to prevail and nor, quite possibly, did he). However, the chequered nature of that win, a two per cent loss in the popular vote (the widest margin of “defeat” for a victorious candidate since 1876) but a passable, if far from overwhelming, majority in the only vote that counts — the Electoral College — was a necessary reminder that federalism matters more and elite opinion less than is sometimes assumed.

Remembering that is a good beginning to understanding why, despite Trump ratcheting up a record of gaffes, blunders and peculiarity unthinkable in any other president, earlier talk of a Democratic “wave” in the   midterm elections on November 6 has evaporated.

While that might merit a celebratory presidential Diet Coke, the Republicans still face a tricky day on the sixth. Despite a healthy economy (GDP grew at an annualised 4.2 per cent in the second quarter, the unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 per cent in September and in the same month consumer confidence reached an 18-year high), almost all the “generic” polling has the generic Democrat comfortably ahead of the generic Republican. Even without Trump in the Oval Office this was coming. An incumbent president’s party almost always struggles in the midterms. Like a British by-election, except for far higher stakes (all the seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs, as will 35 Senate seats and numerous state-level offices), midterms are often used by the voters who show up (turnout is typically around 40 per cent, compared with 60 per cent in a presidential election year) to shake a fist at those in charge.

There are incumbent presidents, and then there is Donald J. Trump, whose approval rating has been dismal for most of his time in office. As I write (late October) it is ticking up and now stands somewhere in the mid-40s, weak for a strong economy and at a roughly similar level to Barack Obama’s polling eight years ago. But that was in the aftermath of the financial crisis and shortly before game-changing midterms in which the Democrats suffered a loss of more than 60 seats and control of the House, as well as a brutal reduction in their Senate majority. The Republicans’ chances will be hurt by too much Trump in some areas — upscale suburbs and their remaining redoubts on the east and west coasts in particular — but they could, in a paradox that may mean trouble for them beyond 2018, be hurt by not enough Trump elsewhere, specifically in the rust belt, where voters who moved from Obama (or no vote) to Trump made enough of a difference in their states to tip the 2016 election the GOP’s way.

The Great Revolt by journalist Salena Zito and Republican strategist Brad Todd may be something of a rose-tinted (although fascinating) study of some of those who switched sides, but the results cited in the book are what they are. Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, a traditionally coal-mining area, gave Obama (also its choice in 2008) a 5-percentage point edge in 2012, but went to Trump by 20 points four years later. Tiny Lake County, Michigan is the poorest county in that state. It preferred Obama in 2008 and 2012 (on the latter occasion by five points), but handed Trump a 23-point lead in 2016. There were plenty more swings like that, and they were enough — just — to deliver Pennsylvania (by a little over 40,000 votes) and Michigan (by a little under 12,000 votes) to Trump in 2016.

At their heart, those swings to Trump were a protest by embattled “left-behinds” trying to preserve what was left of their status in a rapidly changing nation led by a political and media class that insulted, demeaned and demonised them. The pushback was not confined to the rust belt. The New York Times’s Nate Cohn noted last year, “Almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016, either supporting Mr Trump or voting for a third-party candidate.” These voters saw themselves at the wrong end of globalisation (they were), on the wrong side of the many-layered social, cultural and economic revolution being pushed by America’s coastal elites (they are), and they really, really did not like Hillary Clinton (who in turn dubbed them “deplorable”). But however much they had fallen out with the Democrats, they suspected that the Republicans were just a different side of a corrupt Washington establishment with no interest in their plight. To them, Trump was an outsider, a disruptor. Billionaire or not, he appeared to sympathise and they heard his dog-whistle too. They handed him a mandate to try something different (and they were prepared to lend some votes to those riding on his coattails as well).

Those new voters ought to be pleased enough with their choice. No small part of Trump’s appeal was his pledge to fix the bad trade deals that had supposedly cost so many American jobs. Since taking office, he has revised the free trade agreement with South Korea, and secured Canada and Mexico’s agreement to replace Nafta with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), in each case in ways designed to boost American manufacturing employment. As it is, some 400,000 new manufacturing jobs were created in the first 21 months of the Trump administration, far ahead of the pace in the last Obama years. Trump has also taken the tariff fight to the EU (for now there is a ceasefire), and, much more significantly, China. And when it comes to the red, white and blue, these voters should appreciate the difference between an Obama too ready to apologise for his country and a Trump rarely prepared to apologise for anything. Trump’s tough stance on immigration will not hurt him with this constituency either.

For all that, the polls suggest that quite a few rust belt bolters will return to the Democratic fold. Unions, determined to bring their numbers back in line, have stepped up their campaigning. Much of the economic recovery is still passing the left-behind by. Trump may be on the stump, but he is not on the ballot. Voting for just another Republican stiff does not deliver that same insurgent thrill.

Trump is a one-off. He was able to break through because he had the bucks, dreary competition and a powerful place in popular culture. However, he could not have managed it without an audience ready for the message that, thanks to the internet, he was able to communicate directly — with sly skill and without the intermediation of America’s nauseatingly pharisaical media. Say what you will about former Trump consigliere Steve Bannon, he grasped that the “three-legged stool” — strong defence, social conservatism and free market economics — that Ronald Reagan saw as essential for a GOP victory, was broken.

Republicans will not go as far down the populist and nationalist route as Bannon (who was also keen to defy the GOP’s tax taboo by raising taxes on the very richest) would advocate, but as former Trump speechwriter and transition adviser Frank Buckley pointed out his recent book, The Republican Workers Party, most Americans skew further to the left economically than many Republicans realised. Buckley maintains there is a “sweet spot” for the candidate “who won’t touch Social Security and who promises to nominate a judge in the mould of [the late conservative Supreme Court Justice] Antonin Scalia. Donald Trump, in other words”. Trade apart, the more “leftist” side to Trump (which has, to be fair, always been there) has not been, to put it mildly, very visible since he took office. However, regardless of the direction in which Trump may turn in the next two years, the best shot at a successful GOP future lies not with a Reagan 2.0, but in a formula that blends patriotic populism with, economically and socially, a robust American variant of Christian Democracy. It will not be a smooth ride.

Republican failure to repeat Trump’s rust belt miracle will not mean a Democratic landslide: Trump’s appeal to blue-collar whites has not disappeared, and his wider base within the GOP has remained remarkably resilient through the tweetstorms. While Trump’s approval ratings are low, and have always been low, they come with a very sturdy floor, albeit one that rests, to make a nonsense of architectural metaphors, on just one column — Republican voters. America’s political divisions have sharpened. The once respectable degree of approval a president could expect from supporters of the other party has been shrinking since the Eisenhower era. According to Gallup, both Ike and JFK enjoyed approval ratings from across the aisle averaging a little under 50 per cent. Bill Clinton, by contrast, could (the Pew Research Center found) only manage 27 per cent, a figure of which Obama (14 per cent) could only dream. Trump? Seven per cent.

Republicans, however, have stood by their man. On average, 84 per cent of them approve of the job Trump is doing, a rating roughly in line with that received by earlier presidents from their own team. Even if we ignore the effect of a strong economy (and we should not), and even if we ignore the way that America’s growing political polarisation is pushing Republicans to downplay or turn a blind eye to their leader’s obvious flaws (we should not), this is less surprising than it may seem. Stylistically Trump may have next to nothing in common with previous Republican presidents (or presidents full stop), but this former Democrat’s administration has broken with his (current) party’s orthodoxy by less than some imagined.

This year saw a massive tax cut (that it ignored the concerns of budget hawks was not, sadly, anything new). There has been significant regulatory rollback, both by repealing existing regulations and, no less importantly, by not introducing new ones. According to calculations by the Brookings Institution, 69 “major rules” (as defined by the Office of Management and Budget) were introduced in the first year of the Obama administration, but only 30 in Trump’s initial 12 months, a slowdown that should continue regardless of the midterm results. Sometimes it takes a crony capitalist to understand the value of getting government out of the way.

Then there are the courts. With the law increasingly politicised, the appointment of judges — as the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court demonstrates — has become an increasingly bitter battlefield. Trump has placed two conservative judges onto the Supreme Court, offering Republicans the prospect of the clear right-of-centre tilt that they have been awaiting for years. He has also pushed through a record number of appointments further down the judicial pecking order. Neither achievement would have been possible without GOP control of the Senate. The Kavanaugh collision will have reminded any GOP voters who needed reminding that there is a lot at stake on November 6.

While Trump’s views on trade make some Republicans wince, there has been little (overall — as always with this president there have been some alarming moments) in his broader foreign policy to disturb them. Abandoning both the neocons’ expensive (in many senses) universalism and the ostentatious humility and “leading from behind” of the Obama years, in favour of a colder “Jacksonian” calculation of the national interest, has played well with the GOP’s rank-and-file. Trump has eased off his nuttier talk about Nato, and he appears to have bullied some of the Atlantic Alliance’s deadbeats into agreeing to cough up a bit more. Meanwhile, the US is boosting its own military budget, much of it with an eye on deterring China and, yes, Russia. For all Trump’s unsettling, even flirtatious attitudes to some of the world’s hard men, an America that is “great again” is not going to be pushed around, a theme that rarely plays poorly on the right.

When it comes to policy, the greatest difference between the Trump administration and its GOP predecessors may be over immigration. Divisions within the Congressional Republican party over this topic have meant that the only route to tighter control has been through administrative action. Bureaucracies — consider the Home Office — are not known for their light touch. The harshest aspects of the administration’s approach (most notably the deservedly notorious and highly unpopular “family separation” policy at the border) — have proved highly contentious. But the Democrats’ increasingly sharp shift on immigration (as in so many other matters, ever further to the left) has meant that those favouring a tougher approach to immigration — and that is most rank and file Republicans, even before a several-thousand-strong “caravan” of migrants started to move north from Central America in mid-October — have nowhere else to turn.

But will they turn out to vote? Traditionally Republicans have been more willing to make their way to midterm voting stations than have their opponents. For a while, it had looked as if this would not be the case in 2018. Enraged by Trump, Democrats have been turning out in more force than usual for “off-year” (elections held in an odd-numbered year) and “special” (by) elections. In themselves the results, whether slimmer victory margins or outright losses, particularly at the state level, do not make pleasant reading for the Republicans, but the pickup in Democratic turnout may be a dark omen, made darker still by signs that fewer Republicans were bothering to vote.

It may be, however, that the brawl over the Kavanaugh nomination — a brawl so nasty that, even despite America’s short attention span, it is unlikely to have been forgotten by election day — has brightened the picture for the GOP. Although the Kavanaugh drama widened a huge gender gap even further in the Democrats’ direction (according to a mid-October NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of likely voters, women favoured the Democrats by a 57-32 margin, while the GOP’s lead with men was 52-38), it seemed to have energised some previously somnolent Republicans.

A mid-October CBS survey of “battleground states” revealed a jump in the number of Republicans who were “very enthusiastic” about voting to 62 per cent (compared to 51 per cent the month before). This trend was backed by a poll revealing that roughly equal numbers (80 per cent or so) of Republicans and Democrats considered that the midterms were “very important”. In earlier surveys this year, considerably more Democrats than Republicans had felt that way. The National Republican Congressional Committee reported that low-dollar giving, a characteristic sign of grassroots enthusiasm, has also perked up. It may be telling that, in eight key states, early voting (something permitted to varying degrees in 38 states and the District of Columbia) appeared to show the Republicans ahead in seven.

The bad news for the GOP is that six out of ten Democrats were already enthused about voting (more evidence that the Republicans will not see any turnout advantage this time round). Democratic fundraising, including those weathervane low-donations, has also been running strongly all year — and still is. In the third quarter, Democrats raised more than three times as much (in total) for their campaigns in the 30 “toss-up” states than Republicans could drum up, something that could easily tip a number of those seats the Democrats’ way, and is clearly a concern for the White House.

The even worse news for the party of Trump? It looks from a CNN poll, released on October 10, as if women will turn out to vote in just as large numbers as men. That is not normally the case. It is no coincidence that there has been a surge in the number of women running for office this year, a surge, for the most part, accounted for by, you guessed it, Democrats. Then again, 53 per cent of white women — including 45 per cent of white women with college degrees — voted for Trump in 2016, suggesting that some of the gender gap may be exaggerated. Perhaps there is a reason to believe (largely) anecdotal evidence that the onslaught on Kavanaugh may have persuaded some Republican women to (once again) overcome their doubts about the pussy-grabber and stick with their party.

Latinos may also fail the Democrats. They constitute just under 13 per cent of the electorate, and heavily favour the Democrats (a widely-quoted national exit poll showing that 29 per cent of Hispanics opted for Trump in 2016 looks to have been a substantial overestimate that — familiar story — failed to reflect regional disparities). It is striking then that, despite (if that’s the right word — feelings on this issue are more nuanced than often assumed) all the controversies over immigration, a late September poll showed that 41 per cent of Latinos “approved” of Trump’s job performance (and that was not so much of an outlier as might be thought). That does not necessarily mean that they will vote for him, but it may make them less determined to come out to vote against him. With Latino turnout customarily low (27 per cent in the 2014 midterms), that matters. One of the explanations for that reluctance to vote, incidentally, is that over 40 per cent of eligible Latino voters are under 35, an age range in which far fewer Americans of any kind are interested in voting. The data miners at FiveThirtyEight, a website known for its polling analysis, have found signs, including relatively high turnout by younger voters in 2017’s off-year elections, that hint that in 2018 this will be different.

So what is going to happen? In the absence of — and with this president this is a big “absence” — some new scandal catching fire (currently the New York Times is doing its best to create some kindling out of the Trump family’s tax “planning”), an unusually unfortunate tweet, a major development in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or, to steal Harold Macmillan’s useful word, “events” (I am writing this a few hours after news broke that pipe bombs had been sent to some leading Democrats), there’s a chance that Republicans may actually increase their 51-49 Senate majority. They start with a strong defensive position. Only 9 of the 35 contested seats are currently in GOP hands. Moreover, thanks to Vice President Pence having a casting vote, they only need to hang on to 50 seats to keep control.

The Democrats’ hopes that Beto O’Rourke (left) might unseat Ted Cruz (right) in the Texas senatorial race look likely to be disappointed (©Tom Reel-Pool/Getty Images)

What’s more, Democratic hopes that a would-be Obama 2.0, Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, a likeable and extraordinarily well-funded Irish-American congressman from El Paso with a handy Latino nickname, might defeat Texas’s Rafael “Ted” Cruz, a pantomime villain Latino senator with a handy Anglo middle name, look likely to be disappointed. So does Phil Bredesen, Taylor Swift’s pick to upset the Republicans in Tennessee. The GOP is still on the defensive in Nevada and, particularly, Arizona, but there are signs that the tide is turning its way in both states. Republicans, meanwhile, are greedily eyeing a handful of possible gains too, including Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, the latter two both states where the Kavanaugh wars may have helped the GOP.

It looks, however, as if Republicans will lose the House. The scale of defeat will probably be modest (perhaps very modest), a good way short of those more than 60 seats lost by the Democrats in 2010, not least because any sort of landslide would need Democrats to win a lot of Republican or Republican-leaning seats, not easy at the best of times, and these are not the best of times.

But any Democratic majority, however slim, will be enough to enable the party to launch the investigations that it hopes will enmesh and eventually strangle Trump. To win control of the House the Democrats will need 218 seats. They currently have a little under 200. If they reach the magic 218, the rules of the game will change in a way that is likely to influence politics more than policy. Democrats will have proper cards of their own — rather than those that chance or the cackhandedness of the president sling their way — to play. And, in the shape of investigations (directly or indirectly) of the president launched by congressional committees they would then control, they will play them aggressively.

Quite what these investigations will turn up is anyone’s guess, as is the way in which Trump, not always at his best under pressure, will react to their mere existence, let alone to any adverse conclusions they may draw. Meanwhile Mueller’s probe drags menacingly on. He has already gathered an impressive collection of scalps, and there will be more. Whether, by encouraging a Democratic House to try its luck with impeachment, one might eventually come with orange hair may define the next two years.

In the unlikely event that the Republicans lose the Senate as well as the House, their leaders’ most likely response will be to try to distance the GOP from the president who led them to disaster. That will be no easy task with so many of the party faithful on the Trump train. And it was not just the GOPeons. A good number of the GOP elite also hitched a ride: To take one example among many, just this past summer, former Trump foe, Senator “little Marco” Rubio was proclaiming the need for “a new nationalism”. “Make America Great Again” had, I suppose, been taken.

And if Republicans hold both Senate and House, the film director Rob Reiner, one of the most vocal of Hollywood’s maddened liberal herd, has tweeted a warning of what to expect: “A fascist autocracy.”


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