The beginning of May before midterm elections marks the start of primary season and six months of fall campaigning. The conventional view this year is Democrats will be clobbered in November. Why? Because midterms are usually referendums on a president’s performance, and Biden’s approval ratings are in the cellar.
But the conventional view could be wrong because it doesn’t account for the Democrat’s secret sauce, which gives them a fighting chance of keeping one or both chambers: Trump Sauce.
According to recent polls, Trump’s popularity continues to sink. He is liked by only 38 percent of Americans and disliked by 46 percent. (12 percent are neutral.) And this isn’t your normal “sort of like, sort of dislike” polling. Feelings are intense, as they’ve always been about Trump. Among voters 45 to 64 years old — a group Trump won in 2020, 50 percent to 49 percent, according to exit polls — just 39 percent now view him favorably and 57 percent, unfavorably. Among voters 65 and older (52 percent of whom voted for him in 2020 to Biden's 47 percent) only 44 percent now see him favorably and more than half (54 percent) unfavorably. Perhaps most importantly, independents hold him in even lower regard. Just 26 percent view him favorably; 68 percent unfavorably.
Republican lawmakers had hoped — and assumed — Trump would have faded from the scene by now, allowing them to engage in full-throttled attacks on Democrats in the lead-up to the midterms. No such luck. In fact, Trump’s visibility is growing daily.
The media is framing this month’s big Republican primaries as all about Trump — which is exactly as Trump wants them framed. But this framing is disastrous for the GOP. Yesterday's Republican Ohio primary, for example, has become a giant proxy battle over who’s the Trumpiest candidate. The candidates have been outdoing each other trying to imitate him -- railing against undocumented immigrants, coastal elites, “socialism,” and “wokeness,” all the while regurgitating the Big Lie.
Trump’s April 15 endorsement of JD Vance could make the difference today — as could Trump’s backing of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s May 17th primary and of Hershel Walker in Georgia’s May 24 primary. But whether Trump’s endorsements pay off in wins for these candidates is beside the point. By making these races all about him, Trump is casting the midterms as a whole as a referendum on his continuing power and influence. This is exactly what the Democrats need.
June’s televised hearings of the House January 6 committee will likely show in detail how Trump and his White House orchestrated the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and rekindle memories of Trump’s threat to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian president Zelensky came up with dirt on Biden. But the real significance of the hearings won’t show up in Trump’s approval ratings. It will be in the heightened reminders of Trump’s reign in Washington, and, as a result, an almost certain shift in marginal voters’ preferences toward the Democrats in November.
Also likely in June is a decision by the Supreme Court to uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after fifteen weeks – courtesy of Trump’s three Court nominees. The decision will green-light other Republican states to enact similar or even tighter bans, and spur Republicans in Congress to push for national legislation to bar abortions across the country. Republicans believe this will ignite their base, but it’s more likely to ignite a firestorm among the vast majority of Americans who believe abortion should be legal. Score more Democratic votes.
There is also the possibility of criminal trials over Trump’s business and electoral frauds (such as his brazen attempt to change the Georgia vote tally) — whose significance will be less about whether Trump is found guilty than additional reminders, in the months before the midterms, of Trump’s brazen lawlessness.
Meanwhile, Trump will treat America to more rallies, interviews, and barnstorming to convince voters the 2020 election was stolen from him, along with incessant demands that Republican candidates reiterate his Big Lie. More help to Democrats.
Somewhere along the line, and also before the midterms, Elon Musk is likely to allow Trump back on Twitter. The move will be bad for America — fueling more racism, xenophobia, and division. But it will serve as another memento of how dangerously incendiary Trump and Trumpism continue to be.
Accompanying all of this will be the ongoing antics of Trump’s whacky surrogates – Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Steven Bannon, Madison Cawthorn, Trump Junior, et al – who mimic Trump’s bravado, bigotry, divisiveness, and disdain for the law. All are walking billboards for Trumpism’s heinous impact on American life. All will push wavering voters toward Democrats in November.
I’m not suggesting Democrats seeking election or reelection center their campaigns around Trump. To the contrary, Democrats need to show voters their continuing commitment to improving voters’ lives. Between now and November, Democrats should enact laws to help Americans afford childcare, cut the costs of prescription drugs, and stop oil companies from price gouging, for example.
But Democrats can count on Americans’ awakened awareness of the hatefulness and chaos Trump and his Republican enablers have unleashed. The combination – Democrats scoring some additional victories for average Americans, and Trump and others doing everything possible to recollect his viciousness – could well reverse conventional wisdom about midterms, and keep Democrats in control.
Crossposted with permission from Robert Reich.