Off to the Races

Numbers Show House GOP Still in Deep Trouble

Republicans trail badly in voter intensity, as more people say they want representatives who will be a check on President Trump.

President Trump at an iftar dinner, which breaks a daylong fast, celebrating Islam's holy month of Ramadan, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Wednesday
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 7, 2018, 8 p.m.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday morning had both good and bad news for President Trump and his party. The good news was that optimism about the direction of the country and the percentage of people believing that the economy is improving are both up from the last NBC/WSJ poll in April. Not surprisingly, the president’s job approval was up, as we have seen in other polling of late.

The bad news for Trump and the GOP is that even with that hopeful news, Republicans are 10 points behind Democrats on the closely-watched generic congressional ballot, while the president’s numbers—albeit improved — are still really bad and underwater. Democrats have a substantial advantage in intensity going into this midterm election, and respondents said, by a very wide margin, that they prefer voting for a candidate that would provide a check on Trump. In short, people see things as getting better, but Republicans — particularly in the House — are still in deep trouble.

The nationwide survey of 900 registered voters, conducted jointly by Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research and Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, showed the share of voters believing that the country is headed in the right direction was up 5 points from the April NBC/WSJ poll, from 31 to 36 percent, while those saying off the country was off on the wrong track was down 7 points, 62 to 55 percent. The late Richard Wirthlin, who served as President Reagan’s pollster and popularized the right-direction/wrong-track question, used to refer to it as “the Dow Jones indicator of American politics,” a useful barometer of midterm-election mood.

Trump’s approval rating jumped 5 points since April, from 39 to 44 percent. Breaking these new numbers down, 26 percent strongly approved of his performance, 18 percent somewhat approved, 11 percent somewhat disapproved, and 42 percent strongly disapproved. It should be noted that the April right-direction/wrong-track and job-approval numbers were among all adults sampled, while the June survey only included registered voters. In the past, when a president’s job-approval ratings were in the mid-40s or less, going into a midterm election, the results for the president’s party were very bad.

Keep in mind that in midterm elections, turnout tends to run about a third lower than in presidential elections, so intensity is especially important. Among registered voters in this survey, 63 percent of Democrats said they were very interested in this election, indicating that they were a nine or 10 on a 10-point scale of interest. Just 47 percent of Republicans showed that level of interest, an ominous sign for the GOP.

On the generic congressional ballot, Democrats have a 10-point advantage, 50 to 40 percent in the new poll, compared to a 7-point Democratic edge among registered voters in the April survey, and precisely the same as in the poll prior to that in March. The generic-ballot test is being more closely watched than in any other election in memory, and I had been anxious to see the findings in this particular survey, as the vast majority of generic-ballot-poll findings over the past two months have been from either online or robo-polls, not from live telephone interviewers calling both cell phone and landline numbers (which I strongly prefer).

One finding that should be particularly troubling to Republicans in the new NBC/WSJ poll is that when respondents were asked if they would be more or less likely to support “a candidate who promise to provide a check on Donald Trump,” 48 percent said they would be more likely, and just 23 percent said they would be less likely. By a 10-point margin, they would be less likely to support a candidate “who supports Donald Trump’s policies on immigration and border security. By a 6-point spread they are less likely to support a “candidate who supports Donald Trump’s tax-reform bill” and by a 22-point margin, 53 to 31 percent, they would be less likely to support “a candidate who has supported President Trump’s issue positions over 90 percent of the time.” Conversely, by a 24-point margin, they would be less likely to back a candidate “who would support Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House if Democrats take control.”

When asked, “in the next election for U.S. Congress, do you feel that your representative deserves to be reelected, or do you think it is time to give a new person a chance?” 53 percent preferred a new person, just 32 percent thought their representative deserves to be reelected.

The bottom line is that even with the president’s numbers not quite as bad as they were last fall, Congressional Republicans still face an uphill struggle to maintain their House majority. The bad news for the GOP still far outweighs the good.

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