How to Lose a Majority

AWalter Head
April 1, 2017

The very public intra-party fight between President Trump and the Freedom Caucus is just the latest twist in the ongoing fight over the philosophical, strategic and ideological direction of the Republican party. As has been his mode of operation since his candidate days, Trump has taken to Twitter to shame/intimidate/cajole members of his own party. In this case, it was to get rebellious GOPers to “take one for the team” and support a flawed, but nonetheless GOP-authored Obamacare replacement bill.  But, in the end, it’s not the Freedom Caucus that gets hurt by this infighting. They sit in safe Republican seats and know their voters better than anyone in DC. Instead, it’s the vulnerable GOP incumbents who lose this fight. Why? The more the GOP gets bogged down in process instead of progress, the more likely it is that their voters become disillusioned and that independent voters abandon them. Combine these ingredients with an energized Democratic base and you have all the ingredients for a disastrous midterm election in 2018 for the GOP.

In fact, if you look back at the last four midterm elections where the party in the White House lost control of one or both houses of Congress, you see that they share the following traits in common: the president has approval ratings among his own partisans under 85 percent and approval ratings among independents in the 30’s or low 40s. 

For example, in November 2006, President George W. Bush’s job approval ratings among his own party were 81 percent. Just 31 percent of independents gave him a positive job rating. His party lost 30 House seats – and control of the House. Four years earlier, in the 2002 midterms, Bush’s job approval ratings among Republicans were a robust 91 percent and among independents they were at 63 percent. His party picked up eight seats in the House that year. We are less than 75 days into the Trump Administration and the president is flirting very close to the danger zone territory. The most recent Gallup survey put his approval ratings with Republicans at 85 percent, but he’s sitting at just 33 percent with independents. If he drops a few points among GOPers, Trump’s ratings today would look exactly like those of President Bush right before his party was routed in 2006. 


Moreover, there’s also empirical evidence that Democrats are more energized in their dislike of Trump than Republicans are in their support of him. The most recent SurveyMonkey Survey found 81 percent of Democrats “strongly disapprove” of the job Trump’s doing, while 54 percent of Republicans “strongly approve” of his job performance. Among independents, strong disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by more than 2-1 (45 percent to 18 percent). An angry voter is an active voter, which in a low-turnout election is bad news for the GOP.

We’ve got a long way to go before the 2018 midterms. But, the current situation of Republican-infighting, a lack of legislative accomplishments and a President determined to keep stoking political divisions is a very dangerous path for the GOP. The good news for Trump: Compared to the last three presidents in their first term, he has about half as many “vulnerable” House members of his own party to worry about. The bad news: if Trump’s numbers continue to look this bad, it helps Democrats recruiting efforts to challenge these incumbents and more. In fact, Trump’s numbers now look more like those of a president who is about to be hit by a wave election that wipes his party out of power in the House, than one who is going to be able to ride a wave of success. This should worry Trump, not just because it means he loses legislative leverage for his agenda, but it means that Democrats now get subpoena power. If you think the Russia/Trump stories are bad for the administration now, just imagine what they’ll look like with Democrats in charge of the oversight committees.