Reality Check: If Trump Wants to Get Re-Elected, He Needs to Expand His Appeal

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Posted: Nov 21, 2018 10:25 AM
Reality Check: If Trump Wants to Get Re-Elected, He Needs to Expand His Appeal

We're now more than two weeks removed from the 2018 midterm elections, and each side can spin the results to their liking.  Democrats will say, not without merit, that capturing the House by netting nearly 40 seats, picking up six net governorships, and somewhat limiting GOP gains in the Senate all adds up to a pretty solid blue wave and a repudiation of the president.  Republicans may counter that the historical average for House gains by the opposition party in the first midterm cycle of a new president is slightly more than of 30 seats, so Democrats' performance on that metric was only slightly above what's typical.  They'll also note that in some key swing states (especially Florida, Ohio and Iowa) they won consequential gubernatorial contests -- all while picking up two US Senate seats, swelling their majority, guaranteeing the continued viability of the Trump-McConnell judicial confirmation pipeline.  

All things considered, I think it's undeniable that the Democrats, predictably, had the better night, but there are at least significant silver linings that Republicans can cling to.  That said, the election outcomes fired off blazing red flares of concern for conservatives, not the least of which was the GOP's collapse in well-heeled suburbs and among independent voters.  For the party to win national elections, they need their coalition to entail rural voters, Reagan/Trump Democrats, and moderate/right-of-center suburbanites, including women.  That combination held -- barely -- in 2016, handing Trump his improbable win, which was aided by independents supporting the Republican ticket by four points.  Two years hence, core elements of the Trump base stayed intact, handing victories to Senate candidates like Mike Braun and Josh Hawley.  But important slices of the 'burbs tilted blue (Trump +4 to tied), and independents swung Democratic by 16 points (to D+12).

Clearly, despite a truly impressive economy humming right along, Trump's party paid a price, losing some of the voters that were crucial to their victories in 2016.  In order to be re-elected, the president must re-attract more women, more moderates, more suburbanites, and more independents.  One of the Pollyannish theories about how Republicans might be able to hold onto power this past fall was that robust jobs and GDP growth would convince voters to help keep a good thing going.  If the economy continues to be an asset in 2020, Trump will certainly feature it as a centerpiece of his re-election narrative.  He'd be crazy not to.  He'll also have other positive stories to tell, and will seek to contrast his accomplishments with whomever the Democrats end up nominating.  But 2018 was an object lesson that a good economy and relative peace are insufficient for Trump to succeed (midterm voters disapproved of his job performance by nine points, for what it's worth).  A post-election national survey from CBS helps tell the story, and should cause consternation at the White House:


Under more 'normal' circumstances, a leader presiding over an economy that is rated as "good" by three-fourths of the electorate would have an economic approval rating in the neighborhood of at least 60 percent, and would boast overall approval marks north of 50 percent.  Voters are willing to give Trump credit on that issue (as well they should; his tax and regulatory agenda has been hugely successful), yet his big-picture job approval sits at a dismal 39 percent.  A lot of Trump supporters are fervent in their belief that his ridiculous tweets, petty fights, and nasty potshots are a winning part of his brand.  They defend all of it, and actually love much of it.  But the simple, clear truth is that the "other stuff" is really hurting him with a lot of voters.  If he wants to be a two-term president, he needs to clean up his act.  He doesn't need to transform himself into some unrecognizable politician-robot; in fact, I suspect he's incapable of major fundamental changes to his character and comportment at this stage of his life.  But even a modicum of additional discipline, control, and respect for presidential norms could go a long way.  That may not feel like a reality to the echo chamber of his base, including the red hat-wearing loyalists who populate the packed, raucous rallies we've grown accustomed to -- but it's glaringly obvious to more peripheral supporters and potential allies.

Granted, the Democratic House will likely provide a useful foil for Trump over the next two years, and if the Democrats make a poor choice in their presidential nomination process, Trump is a master of exploiting weakness.  Incumbency is powerful, especially with a strong economy, so at this stage there's absolutely no reason to believe that Trump has anything less than a 50/50 shot at winning four more years in 2020.  Likewise, the midterms were not a harbinger of the president's inevitable demise (recall that Obama got wiped out in 2010, then won again two years later); it was a warning sign.  Trump can be a two-termer if he manages to reassemble and build upon his 2016 coalition, which frayed two weeks ago.  His amped-up, base-only strategy will hand the White House to the Democrats if he doesn't pivot and make some necessary adjustments.

Parting thought: Two popular dismissals of analyses like this no longer apply: The polls were largely accurate in 2018, and not only was I not 'wrong' about the dynamics of these most recent elections, I was demonstrably quite accurate.  Do with that what you will.

UPDATE - I expounded on this point in my radio monologue last night.