Off to the Races

Democrats’ Midterm Margin for Error Is Shrinking

Poll numbers for President Trump and the GOP are inching up. Will the trend continue?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
May 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s still true that Democrats are far more likely than not to capture a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010, but their margin for error may be less than it was six months or even one month ago.

The micro-political, race-by-race picture has improved little if at all for the GOP; indeed in some respects the individual race situation was worse last fall than was fully appreciated at the time. But it is the macro-political, top-down situation that looks less rosy for Democrats than in past months.

Keeping in mind that midterm elections are almost always referenda on the incumbent in the White House, President Trump’s job-approval ratings are still bad—43 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove in the Gallup Poll conducted May 7-13—but not as bad as they were earlier this year or prior to the December passage of the tax cuts. The 43 percent approval rating is a point higher than in the two previous weeks and the highest in the Gallup Poll since Feb. 27-March 5 of last year. The 52 percent disapprove was his lowest since April 17-23, 2017. (Nate Silver noted Monday that Trump’s approval in the poll average, 42.4 percent, is the highest it’s been since May 4, 2017—before Trump fired James Comey.)

Trump’s current 43 percent Gallup approval is a point above Jimmy Carter’s approval rating at this point, but below those of other post-World War II presidents, though not far below Ronald Reagan’s 45 percent and Barack Obama’s 48 percent.

Recent generic congressional ballot numbers are still bad for Republicans, but like the president’s approval ratings, not as bad as before. This means that, at least if the election were held today, Democrats would have a strong wind at their backs but hardly the gale-force levels of last fall. As a practical matter, it means that Democrats have less margin for error. Things were going so well for them last fall that it was unlikely that primaries nominating exotic candidates would prevent them from winning a bare 218-seat majority. Now Democrats can ill-afford nominating too many candidates who are badly flawed or too liberal to win a district that has voted Republican in recent years.

The most popular metaphor for describing midterm-election dynamics is a wave or tidal wave—particularly in recent years given that control of the House, the Senate, or both have flipped in four of the last six midterm elections. But some suggest that a tornado might be more apt: less uniform than a tidal wave, with the tempest reaching down to obliterate a couple of houses or a block or two, then picking up only to come back down a few blocks or even counties away. Our midterm elections have never quite had the uniform swings that British elections do, with their famous BBC “swingometer” that shows how many and which seats would flip if the national vote shifted a half–point in the direction of a party.

The uptick for Trump, and by extension congressional Republicans, began after passage of the tax cut in December when he saw a small though temporary improvement in his standing among independents but a far more substantial and so far durable increase among self-described Republicans. Favorable economic data and hopeful news of an improvement in the dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula seems to have powered the most recent increase in Trump and GOP numbers.

Signs suggest that the economy should remain in good shape through the Nov. 6 election. The Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey for May of 52 top economists forecasts a 3.2 percent increase in the real gross domestic product for the current, second quarter of this year. The New York Fed Staff Nowcast model pegs second-quarter GDP growth at 2.97 percent, and the Atlanta Fed GDPNow model points to a 4 percent growth rate. The Blue Chip consensus forecast is for a 3 percent rate in the third quarter and slight dip to 2.8 percent real GDP growth rate for the fourth quarter of 2018. The Blue Chip consensus forecast for the unemployment rate is 4 percent for the current quarter, dropping to 3.9 and 3.7 percent for the third and fourth quarters of this year, respectively.

While the economy doesn’t look likely to turn down between now and the midterm election, it’s worth asking whether Trump’s high-wire act on foreign policy issues will continue to succeed. He often seems to have a distinctly contrarian approach on both foreign and domestic policy issues—when in doubt, do the opposite of what President Obama would have done, or what most of our allies would like us to do. Maybe this will continue working for Trump and his party. We’ll see in November.

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