Off to the Races

The GOP’s Dwindling Base

President Trump is now backed only by his most die-hard supporters, and the same is increasingly true for congressional Republicans.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

With porn actresses, former Playboy playmates, and Cambridge Analytica in the news recently, the bimbo eruptions and failed Arkansas land deal of the 1992 campaign and the Clinton presidency seem pretty tame in comparison. Welcome to the new normal.

At this point—March of his second year in office—President Clinton had a 51 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll, 8 to 11 points higher than President Trump has in every poll but the ever-so-friendly Rasmussen one (where he stood Thursday at 47 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove). We all know how 1994 ended up: Democrats lost control of both the House, where they held the majority for 40 straight years, and the Senate, which they had run for 34 of the previous 40 years. Normally at this point, presidents have decent job approvals but see those numbers drop during their second year in office. With Trump, this is almost certain not to be true;his numbers started off not-so-good, in the mid-40s (45 percent in the Gallup poll toward the end of his first week in office), then dropped to the high 30s and low 40s. No matter the events in the news, he doesn’t drop or gain much—he is down to his base. Think of buying preshrunk jeans: Trump’s approval numbers are preshrunk, unlikely to drop like most presidents’ do in their second year, but unlikely to rise much either.

In my favorite poll, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, which was conducted March 10-14 by Democratic pollster Fred Yang and Republican Bill McInturff, the challenge facing the GOP is pretty obvious. The Democratic generic ballot advantage of 10 points among the 930 registered voters (50 to 40 percent) matches the 10-point lead that Democrats had in the NBC/WSJ poll going into Election Day 2006, the last time that Democrats captured the House and/or Senate. In the last two midterm elections, Republicans had a lead of 2 points in 2010 and were down a single point in 2014. The generic ballot test tends to skew a few points toward Democrats but anything north of 6 points is really bad.

The thing that should scare the heck out of Republicans is that while Democrats have a 24-point lead among voters living in Democrat-held districts, Republicans have no lead in their own districts. In the 2010 midterm election, Republicans had a 15-point lead in their own districts (Democrats had a 17-point lead in their districts), while in 2014, Republicans had an 18-point lead in GOP-held districts (Democrats were up 23 points in their own districts). In the five NBC/WSJ polls asking the generic-ballot test in 2017, Republicans had an 8-point lead in their own districts. In January of this year, it was 14 points. Now, it’s zip.

Looking at specific demographics, Democrats have massive leads with minority groups— African-Americans, for example, favor Democrats by 74 points. And Democrats lead among white women by 13 points. Now consider that Republicans had an 8-point lead among white women in all NBC/WSJ polling in 2010, a 5-point Republican lead in both the 2012 and 2014 merged NBC/WSJ polls, and 7 points in their 2016 polls. In other words, the 73 percent of House Republicans who were elected since 2007 have never run at a time when Republicans were underwater among white women.

But even among white men, GOP numbers are not what they have been or should be. Republicans ran 23 points ahead among white men in 2010 NBC/WSJ polling, by 22 points in 2012, 26 points in 2014, and 24 points in 2016, but just 16 points last year, 13 points in January and 18 points now. Among whites without a college education, Republicans had an 11-point lead; among those with at least a college degree, Democrats were up by 13 points. The numbers that jump off the page are Democrats leading by 38 points among voters age 18-29, 30 points among moderates, 12 points among independents, 11 points in the Midwest and 6 points in the suburbs. Republicans should worry that their vote is so heavy in small-town and rural America, along with certain parts of the Deep South, but too sparse in different kinds of districts where there are more than enough seats to cost them their majority.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s simply astonishing that economic indicators—including consumer, small-business, and big-business confidence—are so strong, and yet the party controlling the White House, House, and Senate is in such trouble.

Another paradox is that we have a president who, by conventional standards, was the least prepared, most erratic, and most undisciplined in modern history, and yet the country and the economy are doing pretty well. To my conservative and Republican friends who said they doubted how the country could survive eight years under President Obama, we did. To liberals and Democrats who are so pessimistic about how things will fare under Trump, we will likely survive this. A country that can get through a revolution, slavery, a Civil War, reconstruction, a Great Depression, two World War, a Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, and 9/11 among other things, is awfully resilient.

Despite that resiliency, voters have vented their spleens and thrown out House and/or Senate majorities in four of the last six midterm elections, and they look poised to do so again in November.

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