Where Presidents Go Before the Midterms

Many recent presidents have focused on foreign policy and summits in the months before Election Day. Trump has stayed on U.S. soil—largely in red states.

President Carter, Israeli Premier Menachem Begin, and President Anwar Sadat during three-power discussions on Middle East problems at Camp David, Maryland in September 1978.
AP Photo
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

Donald Trump’s team boasts that he is “all in” for the midterm campaign and he is spending more than half his official schedule away from the White House and in the states that will have a big say on which party controls Congress in the rest of his first term. In this, he is in line with his recent predecessors, most of whom searched for ways to keep their personal unpopularity from dooming endangered members of their party.

But Trump’s political advisers know that almost all presidents suffer big losses in their first midterm. They are determined not to make the same mistakes made by other presidents. Trump, said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “is not a guy who is going to follow the same song and dance that everybody else has done.”

A National Journal analysis of travel in September and October before the midterms for the past seven presidents shows Trump going to fewer states than his two immediate predecessors and spending fewer days on the road (though Trump reportedly plans to do several more campaign rallies before Election Day). Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 26, Trump will have been to 18 states in 21 days of campaigning. That puts him behind George W. Bush’s 27 states and 22 days, and Barack Obama’s 21 states and 29 days. Trump is well ahead of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter, all of whom spent less time on the campaign trail, often because they feared their unpopularity would drag down their party’s candidate.

Even with a significant 6-point rebound in his approval rating as measured by Gallup since last month, Trump is at 44 percent approval—lower than every president except Reagan, who was at 42 percent in 1982. Five of the previous six presidents lost big in the midterms. Only George W. Bush, whose popularity was buoyed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gained seats in the House and the Senate in the 2002 midterm voting.

Determined to avoid “what doesn’t work,” Sanders said Trump has his own approach to the current campaign. That primarily means trips to states that voted for him in 2016 where he holds his large, rowdy rallies that are his trademark. With Friday’s night’s planned rally in North Carolina, he will have held 21 of them since Sept. 1.

What is missing from the president’s official schedule in these last two months is much related to foreign policy. Certainly, North Korea and trade deals come up in his rallies, but there are no summits and few meetings with foreign leaders. He had meetings in September with the heads of Chile, Kuwait, and Poland, but had no foreign heads of state in since Sept. 27.

That is a sharp contrast with the approaches of most of his predecessors. They banked on the prestige of summitry to help them at the polls and thought there would be political benefit from displaying an ease on the world stage and a mastery of diplomacy. Never was that more pronounced than in 1978 when Jimmy Carter dropped off the campaign trail and for 13 days in September huddled at Camp David with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. When they emerged, Carter had forged the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state in 30 years. His aides hoped such an historic breakthrough would have benefit with American voters. Begin and Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize; Carter lost the House, the Senate, and six governorships.

Undeterred by the precedent, George H.W. Bush also showcased an historic summit as part of his lead-up to the election in 1990. He traveled to Helsinki for a summit with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He also addressed the nation twice on Iraq and, for good measure, addressed the German people on their reunification. Inexplicably, he even left the continental United States a week before voting for the long trip to Hawaii to meet with the leaders of Pacific island nations. With the voters more focused on the economy, there was no perceptible benefit and Republicans had modest loses in the House, Senate, and statehouses. (In contrast to Trump this year, Bush got no political boost from the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. David Souter was sworn in less than four weeks before the election after being confirmed 90-9 in the Senate. It was not a factor in the election.)

Clinton also turned to foreign policy in his 1994 campaign. Less than two weeks before the election, he traveled to the Middle East for a big ceremony as Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty. He also addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem and met with leaders in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. To further stress his foreign policy credentials, Clinton gave three addresses to the nation on Haiti and Iraq, had a state dinner for Nelson Mandela, and met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the weeks before the election. It did not pay off electorally as Democrats lost the House and took a beating in the Senate and the governorships.

George W. Bush also held two summits, but much closer to home. First, only days before the election, he met with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The next day, he went to Mexico for talks with the president of Mexico, the president of South Korea and the prime minister of Japan. Reagan also held a summit with the Mexican president in the weeks prior to the 1982 election.

With the exception of the post-9/11 election of 2002, there is no evidence of any president getting an electoral boost in his first midterm from foreign policy. It is a lesson that Trump seems to have taken to heart and has kept foreign policy off his schedule.

That, though, is not the only difference between his actions in 2018 and those of his predecessors. All the other presidents, while appealing to their own partisans, also reached out to independents and the opposing party in their speeches. Those appeals are missing in Trump’s rhetoric. Similarly, his rhetoric is harsher than what was heard from his predecessors. Reagan, in particular, preferred a light and humorous touch. About the toughest his rhetoric got was when, in a speech in Montana, he labeled his opponents “the bafflegabbers and those fancy dudes in Washington.”


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