The delays and defeats that have engulfed the GOP congressional agenda so far this year, and the chaos and controversy emanating nearly every day from the White House, are part of a larger partisan story: The Republican elephant is hardly the trumpeting, stampeding beast it seemed to be after winning the trifecta (the House, Senate, and presidency) last November. Now that the relief over not losing any winnable House special elections this year is wearing off, the GOP is looking down the barrel of a very difficult midterm election. The single best measure of the standing of the two parties heading into 2018, the generic congressional ballot (which simply asks respondents which party they’d like to control the U.S. House) is beginning to tilt heavily against them.
The Real Clear Politics polling average for the generic ballot now gives Democrats a 8.9 percent lead (47.7/38.8). That’s a larger margin than the one Democrats posted in 2006, when they picked up 31 seats and gained control of the House for the first time in over a decade. A historical model developed by political scientist Alan Abramowitz also shows an eight-point deficit in the generic ballot leading to a predicted 30-seat loss. And the trend lines this year have been very clearly pushing the Democratic margin higher.
Meanwhile, the president’s approval ratings have remained stagnant, with some signs of gradual deterioration. Real Clear Politics’ polling average for presidential job approval is currently at 39/56. Gallup, the traditional monitor of presidential popularity, has his approval rate at 38 percent. Two recent presidents headed for midterm disasters, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, were at 54 percent and 44 percent at this stage of their presidencies.
These hard, cold numbers take on fresh import when you consider the strong possibility of further unproductive gridlock in Congress, more chaos in the White House, and perhaps a real-world crisis or two. At some point, vulnerable Republicans facing voters will be strongly tempted to separate themselves from an unpopular president and an unproductive party. And worse yet, intense hostility to Trump continues to outweigh intense support for him in his party’s base — a very bad sign for a midterm election where likelihood to vote is always depressed from presidential-election levels. Even one of the relatively benign recent polls of Trump’s popularity, from Politico/Morning Consult, which shows his approval ratio as 42/53, is showing a dangerous trend:
“In our poll taken immediately following President Trump’s inauguration, 31 percent of independent voters disapproved of him,” said Morning Consult Co-founder and Chief Research Officer Kyle Dropp. “In this latest poll, that number has nearly doubled to 56 percent. What’s more, the percentage of voters who ‘strongly’ disapprove has jumped from 23 percent to 41 percent in that same time period.”
And the percentage of voters “strongly approving” of Trump languishes at 22 percent.
If this pattern persists, with Trump gradually mobilizing a majority of Americans against him and congressional Republicans seeing their 2018 prospects sinking, we could look back and see this week as an inflection point. The Senate, locus of the latest legislative disaster, and the current object of presidential fury, is suddenly full of Republicans who are sounding fed up, as the Washington Post reports today:
The relationship between President Trump and Senate Republicans has deteriorated so sharply in recent days that some are openly defying his directives, bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil as the GOP labors to reorient its stalled legislative agenda …
Some are describing the dynamic in cold, transactional terms, speaking of Trump as more of a supporting actor than the marquee leader of the Republican Party. If he can help advance their plans, then great, they say. If not, so be it.
“We work for the American people. We don’t work for the president,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said.
One senator has gone into open rebellion: Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Flake, who is generally considered one of the two GOP senators in most danger of losing a general election next year, has just published a book (with the evocative title, Conscience of a Conservative, which was also the title of Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 manifesto) that not only criticizes Donald Trump as a demagogic opportunist who has executed a hostile takeover of the GOP, but also describes “Trumpism” as equivalent to the John Birch Society as a threat to the integrity of conservatism.
The fact that Flake chose to launch this sort of frontal assault on the president and his followers, inviting a certain primary challenge, illustrates the intra-party tensions just under the surface in many parts of the country. Yes, the GOP has accommodated itself, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and sincerity, to its new leader. But if things don’t soon begin to turn around in Washington, the number of Republicans who decide they won’t go down with a ship captained by the man from Mar-a-Lago could begin to rise. There’s no telling how the president would react to spreading apostasy, but it probably wouldn’t be pretty.