The Democratic Party has good reason to be optimistic about the midterm elections. President Trump has proven to be a consistently unpopular president, with FiveThirtyEight putting his most recent approval rating at about 42.1 percent. RealClearPolitics also has the Democrats ahead by about 6.3 percent on generic congressional ballots. The party won major victories earlier this year and last year, securing more congressional seats after a close Senate race in Alabama last December and a House special election in a heavily Republican district of Pennsylvania this March. The Democrats are polling well in key Senate races such as those in Texas, where a Quinnipiac poll earlier this month showed Democrat Beto O’Rourke down by only three percent, and Mississippi, where Democrats believe that they have a legitimate shot at creating a major upset.
It seems very likely that the Democratic Party will be able to take back control of the House of Representatives, and increasingly likely that they could take back the Senate. All this hopeful news has caused many on the Left to grow overly confident. However, the Democratic Party should be wary of this reckless brazenness, both because winning the House and Senate are far from guaranteed and because it is very possible that, like the Republicans before them, the Democrats may be able to take back Congress without winning the presidency in 2020.
The Democratic Party is not popular. True, the Republican Party has consistently polled lower than the Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats have won the heart of the general public. In fact, the Democratic Party’s favorability rating has gone down since Trump became president, as Americans have generally grown more tired of partisan politics. In September of 2016, the Democratic Party had about a 47 percent favorability rating. At Trump’s inauguration, this figure stood at 40 percent. Now, it has dropped to 38 percent, only five percent more favorable than the Republican Party. Opposition to Trump has not led to increased support for the Democratic Party as an institution, despite victories in certain races. While the Democrats have found, and will likely continue to find, limited success based on the American public’s distaste for the President, there is a limit. Ultimately, they’re going to have to rebuild their own reputation if they want to take back power.
This process will include making themselves seem more in touch with the American people. A 2017 poll showed that two-thirds of Americans, including nearly half of Democrats, viewed the Democratic Party as more out of touch than either the Republican Party or Donald Trump. If this persists, it could pose a major dilemma for Democrats both in the midterms and in 2020.
In the United States Senate, although there are some promising signs for a Democratic upset, several left-leaning senators are at risk for defeat. Ten Democratic senators are running in states won by Trump in 2016. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri are all expected to run very close races in their respective states. While a blue wave could save these senators from defeat, the Democrats should absolutely not take for granted that they will win any of these elections.
If the Democrats aren’t careful, this combination of inadequate messaging, poor polling and an unfavorable election map could cost the party the victory it—and the country—so desperately need. If the disastrous 2016 election has taught us anything, it should be that the American people would rather vote for someone than simply against someone else, no matter how terrible the alternative may be. Trump was the most unpopular candidate for president in the history of the United States. Clinton was the second. As a result, many people stayed home; so many, in fact, that had “did not vote” been a candidate, it would have won 471 electoral votes. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with support from only a little over 20 percent of the population, while Trump received the vote of a little over 19 percent of the population. While opinions differ on whether voter turnout ultimately sank the Clinton campaign, these figures still send a clear message that Americans will not turn out to vote for an unpopular candidate, even when the alternative is even less-popular.
Trump also has an uncanny ability to mobilize his base. The majority of people do not have a favorable opinion of the President and do not approve of his performance in office; however, those who still stand behind him are enthusiastic. This helped him win the presidency and the Republican nomination: a March 2016 poll showed that 65 percent of Trump supporters considered themselves “extremely or very enthusiastic” about the candidate. These people voted, and they likely swung the election toward their preferred candidate. They will especially vote if they believe that a Democratic victory in the midterms could result in Trump being removed from office, and the Republican Party understands this. According to The New York Times, mainstream party strategists believe that circulating the possibility of impeachment can act as a scared-straight motivational tool for turnout. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin and many more are already employing this strategy. The Faith & Freedom Coalition, a right-wing political organization meant to bridge the gap between economic and social conservatives, recently sent out fundraising solicitation forms to prepare for what the group has referred to as the “Impeachment Election.”
These Trump supporters are more numerous than we might like to believe. The Washington Post’s “Mood of the Nation Poll” in February 2017 shows that only three percent of Trump voters would have voted for someone else if they could vote again, and less than one percent of them said they would cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton. Even reluctant Trump voters, who only make up about one-fifth of his 2016 coalition, are standing behind the President. According to a study from FiveThirtyEight, 57 percent of reluctant Trump voters expressed no regrets about their choice. These voters are predominantly united by their support of how the President is handling the economy: Eighty-four percent of them either strongly or somewhat approve of Trump’s performance in this regard. They are not moved by Trump’s other scandals, with 78 percent feeling that the media is paying too much attention to the President’s relationships with Russia.
Democrats must not ignore these people, especially since they will become a force to be reckoned with this November. Sixty percent of them voted in the 2014 midterm election, and 69 percent of them have stated that they will absolutely vote in the midterms, with another 18 percent reporting that they will probably vote. Seventy-four percent said that, were midterm election held today, they would vote for the Republican Party candidate. When the Left swarms the polls this November to express their frustration with the President, these voters will be there too, silently (and sometimes not so silently) supporting candidates who will advance Trump’s agenda and vow to keep him in office.
The Democratic Party does not need to be afraid of these people and is still in a very strong position for the midterms. However, the party operatives and voters who want the Republicans out cannot afford to feel confident. Neither a Democratic victory in November nor Trump winning reelection are givens, and American society remains far more divided on the Trump administration than we might like to believe. If we want Trump out, we will need to show up and vote.