Against the Grain

How Democrats Could Squander Their Advantage

The GOP’s best hope for salvaging their congressional majorities is hoping their base turns out. Democrats are worried that their activists could make the GOP’s challenge easier.

A gun-rights rally Saturday in Atlanta
AP Photo/Mike Stewart
April 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

Two of the leading national pollsters released surveys this week, and each yielded significantly different findings about the state of the Republican base.

Neither offered much good news for Republicans: The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed Trump with a middling 39 percent job-approval rating, found Democrats with a 7-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot and, most importantly, concluded Democrats were much more enthused about this year’s midterms. Two-thirds of Democrats surveyed said they were very interested in voting in November, compared to just 49 percent of Republicans. That’s a mirror image of where the parties were in 2010, when stronger GOP intensity led to historic Republican gains in that election.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted around the same time, found Republican voters have grown more engaged as the midterms draw closer. Like its counterpart, the survey wasn’t positive for the president: Trump’s job approval was just 40 percent. But among registered voters, an equal percentage of Republicans and Democrats (68 percent) said they were “certain to vote” in the midterms. The closing of the intensity gap gave Democrats just a 4-point edge on the generic ballot, a margin that would give Republicans a good chance of salvaging their House majority.

The difference in the polls’ findings of partisan engagement isn’t trivial; it shows how essential turning out the base is for Republicans if they want to salvage their congressional majorities. Democrats are already turning out at record levels for anything on a ballot in the Trump era. Independent voters, while still in play, are gravitating towards Democrats as a check on an erratic president. But at a time of immense polarization, the critical variable for Republicans is whether Trump’s supporters show up in a midterm election when the president himself isn’t on a ballot.

Polling aside, it’s a safer bet to expect Democrats to maintain their enthusiasm edge. Historically, the party in control of government is rarely able to generate the excitement mustered when they were out of power. Republicans have struggled to turn out their voters, causing them to lose a reliably Republican Pennsylvania congressional seat and a pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court election in recent weeks. Trump’s decision to pick fights that divide the Republican Party—on trade, Russia, or foreign engagement—only raise the likelihood of widespread GOP apathy.

But the Post poll also offered a hint about how Democrats could end up underperforming in an election that’s squarely in their favor: focusing on polarizing social issues at the expense of bread-and-butter economic ones. Progressives’ increasing emphasis on impeachment (as Trump’s legal troubles worsen), the strident rhetoric emanating from gun-control activists, and the maximalist demands from left-wing immigration hard-liners are all potent weapons for Republicans to use to rally their own dispirited voters.

Take the issue of guns, where the broader politics have been moving in the Democrats’ direction since the Parkland school shooting. Forty-five percent of Republicans in the ABC/Post poll said supporting a candidate who agrees with them on gun policy is “extremely important,” a slightly higher share than the 43 percent of Democrats who are equally emboldened on the issue. Despite all the sympathetic coverage to the gun-control cause, Republicans are now more fired up on the subject. The student activists’ strident attack against the National Rifle Association risks raising the ire of the opposition as much as it excites their already engaged supporters.

It demonstrates a paradox for Democrats: As critical as progressive engagement is to their success, Democrats don’t really need to do much more at all to rally their base. Trump has single-handedly achieved that task for them. The bigger risk is that the progressive energy in the party forces candidates to take out-of-the-mainstream positions on issues that will help Republicans turn out their voters.

A growing chorus of commentators are criticizing Democrats for not articulating what the party stands for. There’s good reason for that. If Democrats end up being too honest about their preferred policy views, they could help Republicans pull out close victories in GOP-leaning races. One Democratic operative told National Journal that party leaders are trying to avoid national press coverage for one of their congressional nominees in a conservative-minded Illinois seat because her personal views are well to the left of the district’s constituents.

It’s easy to forget, but Trump’s favorability rating was just 38 percent on Election Day in 2016, according to exit polls. Fifteen percent of those who disliked him voted for him anyway. Despite all the tumult in Washington, not much has changed since then. Democrats are well-positioned to win back the House because they’ve been able to make the midterms a referendum on Trump’s record. But they still haven’t shown that they offer a compelling alternative.

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