A Three-Ring Political Circus

The real elephants may be gone, but the Republican variety and Democratic donkeys are providing plenty of entertainment.

AP Photo/Bill Sikes
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Cir­cus has gone out of busi­ness, but Wash­ing­ton is still provid­ing a three-ring cir­cus.

The first is Pres­id­ent Trump’s de­cision to drop out of the Par­is cli­mate-change agree­ment. In Gal­lup’s three-day-mov­ing-av­er­age track­ing polls con­duc­ted since Trump took of­fice, his highest ap­prov­al rat­ing for a three-day peri­od was 46 per­cent, and his highest full week was 45 per­cent, right after his in­aug­ur­a­tion. Since then, his weekly av­er­age has been 41 per­cent, with lows of 38 per­cent for a week and 35 per­cent for three days.

Over the past couple of months, Trump’s ap­prov­al/dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings have been re­mark­ably stable. On a good day, his ap­prov­al num­bers will tick up to 41 or 42 per­cent, and on a bad day they will dip down to 38 or 39 per­cent. Dur­ing and just after his trip to Europe, he was up to 41 and 42 per­cent, but in the sub­sequent Thursday, Fri­day, and Sat­urday in­ter­view­ing—the first three sound­ings after his Thursday morn­ing an­nounce­ment that the U.S. would drop out of the cli­mate ac­cord—his ap­prov­al dropped to 36 per­cent (with 58 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al).

In num­bers re­leased Monday af­ter­noon, cov­er­ing Fri­day through Sunday nights, he ticked up a point to 37 per­cent ap­prov­al, while his dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing went down a point to 57 per­cent. This is lower than his usu­al 38 to 42 per­cent ap­prov­al range, but only by a touch. In polling that looks at in­tens­ity, Trump’s strong pos­it­ives have de­clined while his strong neg­at­ives have inched up, but his over­all num­bers haven’t moved much.

Trump’s num­bers are bad, but oth­er pres­id­ents have had troughs too. In Gal­lup polling, four chief ex­ec­ut­ives have seen their ap­prov­al rat­ings drop in­to the 20s: Richard Nix­on (24 per­cent), George W. Bush (25 per­cent), Jimmy Carter (28 per­cent), and George H.W. Bush (29 per­cent). Ron­ald Re­agan dropped as low as 35 per­cent while Bill Clin­ton dipped to 37 per­cent and Barack Obama bot­tomed out at 40 per­cent. Among pres­id­ents who were not ini­tially elec­ted, Harry Tru­man fell to 22 per­cent, Lyn­don John­son to 35 per­cent, and Ger­ald Ford to 37 per­cent.

The second cir­cus ring is former FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey’s con­gres­sion­al testi­mony, which is sched­uled for Thursday. Giv­en all of the in­form­a­tion that’s already been leaked from Comey’s con­tem­por­an­eous notes, we aren’t likely to get a lot of earth­shak­ing rev­el­a­tions, but he will prob­ably re­in­force what we have already heard, which is not par­tic­u­larly help­ful to the White House. Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller is look­ing at a wide range of is­sues, but I don’t think we’ll be hear­ing a lot of leaks from his shop. The same can’t be said for the in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment com­munit­ies. Trump may wish he had treated the CIA and FBI with a little more re­spect a few months ago.

The third ring is the spe­cial elec­tion in Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict on June 20. Demo­crats came up short in two oth­er closely watched spe­cial elec­tions, but both were in dis­tricts friendly to Re­pub­lic­ans. The sub­urb­an At­lanta dis­trict looks a lot more like the ones that are go­ing to de­cide which party has the ma­jor­ity in Janu­ary 2019. Twenty-three House Re­pub­lic­ans are sit­ting in dis­tricts that Hil­lary Clin­ton won, and the 6th Dis­trict is one of the half-dozen or so oth­er GOP-held dis­tricts that Trump won but not by much—in this case, a bit less than 2 per­cent­age points. Demo­crats need a net gain of 24 seats to cap­ture the House.

An ana­lys­is by Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port House Ed­it­or Dav­id Wasser­man shows that Re­pub­lic­ans have a lot to be wor­ried about. Look­ing at the three ser­i­ously con­tested spe­cial elec­tions so far—the bi­par­tis­an primary in Geor­gia, the Kan­sas 4th Dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion on April 11 and the May 25 con­test for the at-large Montana seat—the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates got an av­er­age of 72 per­cent of the vote that Hil­lary Clin­ton re­ceived, while the Re­pub­lic­ans in those three dis­tricts av­er­aged just 56 per­cent of the Trump vote. Spe­cial-elec­tion turnouts are nev­er as high as they are in a pres­id­en­tial year, but these are three GOP-held seats where Re­pub­lic­ans simply didn’t par­ti­cip­ate in even re­motely the kind of num­bers that Demo­crats did. Ac­cord­ing to Wasser­man, Rob Quist, the Demo­crat in Montana, pulled 94 per­cent of the Clin­ton vote total while Greg Gi­an­forte cap­tured just 68 per­cent of the votes that Trump did, though he still ended up win­ning even after body-slam­ming a re­port­er. Look­ing at pre­vi­ous elec­tions, Wasser­man es­tim­ates that the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates have over-per­formed what a “gen­er­ic Demo­crat” in a neut­ral en­vir­on­ment would have re­ceived by between 7 and 12 points.

Nobody knows what the polit­ic­al land­scape will look like in the fall of 2018, but at least in the sum­mer of 2017, this is not an en­vir­on­ment that should make Re­pub­lic­ans feel com­fort­able about their hold on the House.

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