The Midterms Are All About Trump

Midterms are always about presidents, but this president is really dominating the landscape. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s a political science truism that midterm elections are typically referenda on the current president, and that the party controlling the White House typically loses ground in midterms that it won in more congenial presidential elections.

Because there’s never been a president quite like Donald J. Trump, with his extraordinary ability to dominate the media landscape morning, noon, and night, it stands to reason that he might dominate the thinking of voters looking toward the midterms in an especially powerful way. And that’s exactly what a major new survey from Pew shows.

Compared with recent midterms, more voters…say their view of the president – positive or negative – will influence their vote for Congress. A 60% majority say they consider their midterm vote as essentially a vote either for Donald Trump (26%) or against him (34%). These are among the highest shares saying their view of the president would be a factor in their vote in any midterm in more than three decades.

To be clear, it’s the combination of intense positive and negative focus on the president that’s new, and that makes measurements of midterm “enthusiasm” harder to make than is usually the case:

About six-in-ten Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters (61%) say they think of their vote as a vote against Trump; in June 2006, a comparable share of Democrats (65%) considered their midterm vote to be a vote against George W. Bush. In both 2010 and 2014, smaller shares of Republican voters thought of their vote as a vote against Obama (54% in 2010, 51% in 2014).

Currently, 52% of Republican voters view their midterm vote as a vote for Trump, which is higher than the shares of Democrats who said this about Obama in 2010 (43%) and 2014 (35%), or the share of Republicans who saw their vote as being “for” Bush in 2006 (33%).

Overall, Pew is not finding much of an “enthusiasm gap” favoring Democrats.

Democrats hold a slight edge in voter enthusiasm: 55% of registered voters who plan to support the Democrat in their district say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual, and 50% of registered voters who plan to back the Republican say the same.

The survey (taken from June 5–12) does give Democrats a five-point edge in midterm party preferences, which is pretty close to the current 6.1 percent advantage the Real Clear Politics polling averages show for Democrats on the generic congressional ballot. And it indicates a slightly lower-than-average job approval rating for Trump (40 percent; the RCP average is currently 43.7). Based on historical data, you’d figure that this is the number that might matter most in a POTUS-focused midterm. In the data since World War II, four presidents had job approval ratings in the 40s (using Gallup’s measurements) going into the midterms. They lost, respectively, 11 (Carter), 28 (Reagan), 47 (Johnson) and 53 (Clinton) House seats.

So a range of outcomes is still in play (though not the “Red Wave” Trump tweeted about this morning), and relative levels of voter enthusiasm will matter even more when the dog days end and we can measure likelihood to vote with greater precision. But whatever happens, this is Trump’s midterm to win or lose.

These Midterms Aren’t About Issues. They’re About Trump.