Off to the Races

The Numbers to Watch Ahead of November

The percentage of Americans who strongly disapprove of President Trump should worry Republicans, but the generic congressional ballot is more of a mixed bag.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

There seems little point in spending a lot of time trying to assess the political implications of what turned out to be a relatively brief government shutdown. The initial reading of the deal is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got the better of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, but it is the assessment of voters after the dust has settled that makes the biggest difference. Usually there are no winners from shutdowns; one side just loses more than the other. It still seems difficult to believe that a party holding the White House as well as House and Senate majorities doesn’t get the lion’s share of the blame, but we shall see.

What we do have is a raft of high-quality new national polls from ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News, CNN, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, and the Pew Research Center measuring public attitudes towards President Trump at the end of the first year in office. The data is overwhelmingly bad for Trump and his party, though there are some kernels of hopeful news for the GOP.

Trump’s job-approval ratings remain the worst of any elected president entering the second year in office, at least in the 70 years of modern polling. It’s the intensity of the disapproval that should be so worrisome to Republicans. The ABC/Post Poll (Jan. 15-18, of 1,005 adults) put the president’s approval rating at 36 percent with a disapproval of 58 percent, but just 24 percent strongly approved, while 49 percent strongly disapproved. CNN’s poll (Jan. 14-18, of 1,005 adults) found 40 percent approving of Trump’s job performance, 55 percent disapproval, 27 percent strong approval, and 48 percent strong disapproval. The NBC/WSJ Poll (Jan. 13-17, of 900 adults) found 39 percent approval, 57 percent disapproval, strong approval at just 26 percent, and 51 percent strong disapproval. The CBS News Poll (Jan. 13-16, of 1,225 adults) pegged the approval rate at 37 percent and disapproval at 58 percent, while the Pew Research Center showed 37 percent approval as well but a disapproval of 56 percent. CBS and Pew measure only approval and disapproval, not intensity. With roughly 40 percent fewer voters in midterm elections, intensity is a primary driver in turnout.

The veteran pollsters who conduct the NBC/WSJ survey, Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, periodically put in their national poll a question on the role of government, asking respondents which statement comes closer to their own point of view: “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” or “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” In their latest poll, 58 percent sided with the “government should do more” position, the highest share in the 27 times the question has been asked since 1995, while 38 percent chose “government is doing too many things,” the lowest in the series.

Most these days accept the premise that at least for now, there is a Democratic electoral wave building. The question is whether anything interrupts that wave between now and November, either through some unexpected seismic event, or more plausibly, if the U.S. economy continues to grow at a strong pace and—emphasis on and—Americans decide to give Trump and congressional Republicans more credit than they are giving them today for it.

At least going into the shutdown, there was plenty of evidence of a wave but polls showed divergent views of the size of the wave. There is a general assumption that Democrats would need to win the national popular vote for the House by somewhere between 7 and 9 points to overcome the advantages that Republicans have in terms of congressional district boundaries and natural population patterns—Democratic voters being too highly concentrated in urban areas while GOP voters are more efficiently distributed in more districts.

Both the RealClearPolitics.com and FiveThirtyEight.com averages of generic congressional-ballot-test polls show a Democratic advantage of 7 percentage points, at the bottom end of that range. At one end of the spectrum are CNN’s 5-point and the NBC/WSJ poll’s 7-point Democratic advantages; at the other end are ABC/Washington Post and Pew Research Center surveys showing Democrats up by a whopping 14 points. In the ABC/Post poll, the 14 points was among likely voters, while the other surveys this far out looked only at all registered voters.

This wide divergence is important: If the ones at the lower end of this spectrum end up being right, Republicans would likely hold onto their majority by the skin of their teeth, while those on the higher end suggest a slam-dunk win by Democrats. This number is something to watch closely over the next few months for clues of where this election is headed.

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