It is said everywhere that Donald Trump will finally have his wings clipped in the 2018 midterm election. But that is by no means certain. Here’s a scenario.
Soon the nightmare is over. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Russia investigator, will speedily end his investigation and put severe pressure on President Donald Trump. And even if that does not happen, judgment will come in November. Then, one might think – if you read the U.S. media these days – the hour of resistance will strike, the voters will come to the ballot box in droves, and elect undreamed of numbers of Democrats. In this way, Trump becomes a “lame duck” president, who can only set a course with occasional regulations, and otherwise cannot get any more laws through Congress. If he is not impeached anyway.
But there is a problem with this vision of the future: It is far from certain that anything will happen. In the last few weeks, it has become even less likely. Trump is still the president with the worst approval ratings in decades. Yet, lately the voters’ approval of their state leaders has risen – and Republicans should have reason to celebrate these gains during the midterm election.
The Initial Situation
Although the Republican Party still clearly lags behind, the electoral system as well as the fluctuation of the polls may help. In the House of Representatives, the Republicans, depending on the survey, are between 2 and 10 percent behind the Democrats. These national polls are imprecise, because they do not ask about preferred individual candidates, but rather the preferred party. But taken together, they serve as a good predictor of the overall prospects for the 435 seats in the legislature. On average, the Democrats are only about 5 percent ahead.
That would not be enough. In recent years, Republicans in many states have redrawn the voting districts in such a way that they will very clearly lose in some – mostly inner-city – districts, though in many others, they have a narrow chance at victory. As a result of this gerrymandering, the GOP still has the opportunity to win significantly more voting blocs than the Democrats, even if the GOP ends up several percentage points behind in the total number of votes. According to the calculations of Nate Silver and Nate Cohen, the election gurus at fivethirtyeight.com and The New York Times, the Republicans can allow for finishing seven to eight percentage points behind without losing the majority mandate.
Even murkier is the state of the Democrats in the Senate, where there is a narrow Republican majority of 51 out of 100 senators. There are 34 seats up for election this year. Only nine of them are held by Republicans, 26 are being defended by Democrats – 10 of them in states where Trump won the 2016 election. The Democrats would have to defend all of these seats, and win at least two of the Republicans’ ones.
The Trump Turnaround
All of this was considered surmountable by the Democrats at the beginning of the year. At that time, the Democrats were ahead of the Republicans by an average of 13 percent nationwide. But since then, around eight percentage points have been lost. Strategists are racking their brains as to the reasons for these losses. There are four overall probable causes. Unfortunately, they are ones that the opposition has little chance of changing in the short term.
Firstly, the continued good economic situation plays into the hands of the current administration. Although Trump did not cause the good growth and low unemployment from the point of view of most experts – instead he inherited it – the overall impression now favors him. Enter the psychological factor. Clearly Trump has not yet succeeded in creating the “good jobs” that he promised to “bring back” in the election campaign. But he was able to calm the existential fear of being forgotten that is felt by some white Americans in rural areas.
Secondly, the tax cuts of the past year have helped. The social cuts are unpopular in surveys, considering the public also recognize what they are in the opinion of many experts: a shift of poverty from now to the future. But now, many are looking at their paychecks — and they are higher than a year ago. To recognize the government’s role in that is obvious.
Then there is the habituation effect. Much of the eccentric behavior that would have shocked Americans two years ago is now taken as normal. The head of state tweets out atomic threats at three in the morning, or accuses opponents of treason, and many would like to think the sky in Frankfort, Kentucky still hasn’t fallen on anyone’s head. The Mueller investigation also has to deal with this effect; after months of reporting on impending charges, it is difficult for many Americans to maintain interest in the Russia case.
Furthermore, there is the foreign policy situation. Contrary to many fears, it does not look as catastrophic from the standpoint of many Americans as the pundits predicted in 2016. The Islamic State has largely been defeated militarily; there are talks with North Korea. Regardless of whether Trump is responsible, the successes attributed to him are many. The situation in the Middle East and the conflict with Iran have intensified, but even if both conflicts are highly risky, the threat of war has not yet reached the minds of voters.
What would a Republican victory in the midterms mean? First, it would be a confirmation of Trump. He would no longer be the president who was flushed into office by a gap of 3 million votes under a benevolent electoral system, but would be indisputably confirmed as head of state. In particular, there would be internal party consequences: The opposition that still exists in many Republican circles would suddenly have the losing argument. And for Trump, it would become even easier to turn his proposals into law.
These proposals would include campaign promises like the border wall with Mexico or the deportation of many more immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal permission, the reduction of environmental regulations, but also new tax reforms. There would probably be “more of the same,” that is, tax breaks, that in the short term would be noticeable on paychecks, but long-term consequences of which would only later be perceived. With a blind eye toward the future or not, with this mix, the 74-year-old president could become popular again and even energize his base, and thus win a good starting position for the 2020 presidential race and an administration until January 2025.
Above all, it would hurt the Democrats. They see themselves picking up steam as future and almost certain winners. Many young candidates have recently won in the primaries, including an above-average number of women and minority candidates. At least there is great enthusiasm on their side. That is exactly why they promise to win in the fall. This could still succeed, of course, as the “enthusiasm gap” between Trump supporters and the opposition has also been confirmed in some interim elections to fill vacant seats. But if Trump fails, the party may become irrelevant. Society would, however, continue moving to the right. For the future of liberals, that would not bode well.