The Two Conversations
By: Scott Jennings
I haven’t written much about polling this year. It used to be one of my favorite topics, but so much political news happens daily that I’ve wondered whether it is possible to field a poll right now (typically takes 3-4 nights) and have relevant data by the time you are done. But several polls caught my eye recently so what the heck, let’s dive in!
- President Donald Trump’s approval rating is down a bit, but the bottom has not dropped out. Surveys show Trump has dropped since February and March, when he was nearly even among those who approved versus disapproved. Today, the president has high 30’s approval among all adults, and somewhere between 41 and 44 percent approval among possible voters. He’s no worse off than where Bill Clinton found himself in 1993 about this time.
- Republicans are hanging with Trump, although warning signs have emerged. Trump won 90 percent of Republicans on Election Day, but for most of the campaign he scored in the low 80’s among GOP poll respondents. As it was in 2016, Republicans have returned to the low 80’s in approving of Trump’s job performance, but that was before the Obamacare repeal plan went down. I’ve predicted an unhappy GOP base will arise if Republicans fail to keep their repeal-and-replace promise, but will they blame the president, the congress, or both? Congressional Republicans stand on thinner ice than Trump.
Absent a serious escalation in the Russia investigation or a botching of some future crisis, I expect Republicans to largely stick with Trump because they support his agenda. One frame for last week—absent the noise—is that a Republican president announced a major jobs injection for the Midwest, described a serious crackdown on violent gangs, and ended with the news that economic growth rapidly accelerated in the second quarter.
An NBC News poll showed that in counties that flipped from Obama ’12 to Trump ’16, or that surged more than 20 points from Romney ’12 to Trump ’16, voters approved of Trump’s handling of the economy by 51-40 margin (compared to 44-48 nationally). While Trump’s job approval in the “surge” counties (+16) is less than his margin of victory (+36), Trump Country generally remains supportive.
- Democrats remain lost in the wilderness among Heartland voters. Writing for the National Journal, sharp analyst Josh Kraushaar laid it out: “But even after six months of shambolic Republican governance, Democrats are still viewed as an unacceptable alternative to many persuadable voters in middle America.” That analysis came from a new poll of “working-class white voters in pivotal districts that Democrats are targeting in the midterms…Republicans held a 10-point lead on the generic ballot (43-33 percent) among these blue-collar voters.”
If Trump is doing so poorly, why can’t Democrats capitalize outside their core urban strongholds? Simple—they remain far outside the mainstream on cultural issues and don’t seem to have better ideas on the economy.
Trump continues to put Democrats on defense on what many Trump Country voters regard as common sense matters. Trump’s speech to the police officers last week stirred up controversy because of his comments on being rough with gang suspects, but I suspect The White House was just fine with liberals melting down while voters in middle America were thinking “damn straight.” We can debate whether Trump’s comments inflamed tensions between police officers and the citizenry—among the most worrisome civil problems in America today—but the politics of it works just fine in non-urban America.
The same can be said for his tweets communicating a ban on transgendered troops in the military, which set off a firestorm across cable news channels where even conservative commentators like me said the rollout should have been better handled. Later that day, while cable television continued to focus on the ban, Trump announced 13-thousand new manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin. Trump is a master of stoking two conversations in America and making them work to his advantage. While the political elite slammed Trump on claims of discrimination and poor government administration, conservative-leaning middle America was thinking: “That’s probably the right idea, and look at that new factory!”
The first six months of the Trump administration have produced some good economic news (spurred in part by a serious rollback of the Obama-era regulatory regime) even as the rest of his agenda remains derailed or yet to come. His poll standing will improve before the end of the year if he scores a major legislative accomplishment (tax reform?) and/or deftly handles a foreign policy crisis, such as reining in the increasingly intransigent despot in North Korea.
Ultimately, Democrats cannot rely on winning the midterms on the back of a low-polling Trump, as a majority of voters (51 percent) in the July ABC News-Washington Post poll said Trump is not a factor in their vote. The same survey found Republican voters were more motivated to vote than their Democratic counterparts.
While a president’s first midterm historically produces political pain for the party in power, I still favor Republicans to hold their congressional majority even if they lose a few seats.