Off to the Races

Trump’s Risky Bet on His Base

The president has decided to double down on the aggressive strategy that worked for him in 2016. But it may not work for the rest of the GOP.

President Trump during a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House on Monday
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
June 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump has given a new twist to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous line, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In the case of the president, that which hurts him outside his base only makes him stronger within his base.

Someone is going to write a book about the GOP in this first two years under Trump and title it Doubling Down for the big bet that Republicans are placing on his appeals to the base to the exclusion of those outside of it. In 2016, Trump tried to build an intense minority of support, and he pulled it off, losing the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points—2.9 million votes—but winning the Electoral College thanks to capturing Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by fewer than 80,000 votes combined.

Having defied the experts twice—in winning first the nomination and then the presidency—he obviously believes that this recipe can be replicated in a midterm election and presumably an attempt at reelection. With the House teetering on the edge, Republicans holding just a 51-49 edge in the Senate, and an enormous number of GOP governorships and state legislative seats on the line in November, the Republican Party is betting more than the house on the Trump strategy.

Whether you label this America First or call it isolationism, protectionism, or nativism, the GOP coalition is increasingly centered on rural and small-town America and working-class whites, particularly in the Deep South and heartland. The question is whether the recipe that worked for him in 2016 will work for the entire party in 2018 and 2020.

The new Gallup poll, conducted June 18-24, shows Trump’s overall job-approval rating dropping 4 points from the previous week, from 45 to 41 percent, with disapproval up 5 points from 50 to 55 percent. He dropped 3 points among Republicans, from 90 to 87 percent, and 4 points among independents, from 42 to 38 percent, while his support among Democrats was halved, from 10 to 5 percent. It’s hard to say for sure, but it would appear that the self-inflicted wounds coming from his zero-tolerance approach to immigration are overshadowing a good economy and what some hope is progress on defusing the situation with North Korea.

One way of looking at the Republican Party today is to think of thirds, with one-third absolutely, positively in love with Trump and pretty much everything he says and does. The next third mostly agrees with him, wincing here or there but remaining fundamentally with him. The final third has a lot of issues with him and is split—some members are still hanging with him but with reservations, while others are off the reservation. This is the third that Republicans have to worry about staying home in November—they are less in that small-town, rural, working-class coalition and more like the middle-class to upscale, suburban Republicans who used to be the dominant faction in the party.

One finding in the June 1-4 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that did not get nearly enough attention was that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being those with a very high interest in the upcoming midterm election, 63 percent of Democrats pegged themselves as either 9 or 10, compared to just 47 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of independents. Another is that while Democrats had a 10-point lead on the generic congressional-ballot test, respondents in currently Democratic-held districts gave Democrats a 22-point lead, while those in Republican-held districts gave the GOP just a 1-point advantage.

What that means is that Democrats don’t need to worry about holding onto their own districts, but a lot of Republican members who may not be worried today should be. They ought to challenge their pollsters to show them in each poll, “What is the worst-case scenario?” Their pollsters should throw the kitchen sink at the GOP incumbents late in the questionnaire and do a second ballot test to see how much erosion there could be.

For Democrats, the challenge is to think creatively and perhaps cast a wider net for opportunities. This is the kind of year when challengers in one party who don’t get a dime out of their congressional campaign committees successfully knock off incumbents, while incumbents in the other party lose with six-figure cash-in-hand going into Election Day, because they thought they would be OK.

What would drive me crazy if I were a Republican in a competitive district is that just when the party started to get a bit of momentum from the economy and North Korea, the president chose to step on it and crush it into the ground. There is no holding onto a message.

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