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Can Donald Trump continue to defy political gravity?

The political future of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party over the next two years really comes down to ...

Posted: May 6, 2018 8:23 AM
Updated: May 6, 2018 8:23 AM

The political future of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party over the next two years really comes down to one question: Do traditional measures of popularity mean anything when it comes to Trump?

If they do, the Republican Party and Trump are in major trouble.

Usually, we wouldn't even think to ask whether a president with around a 40% approval rating would end up hurting his political party. Yet Trump did something that was seemingly impossible in 2016: He won the presidency, despite being the most unpopular candidate since at least 1952 and with Americans seeming to like the status quo.

President Barack Obama's net favorability rating in the final Gallup poll using a -5 to +5 scale was +16 percentage points. Trump came in with a -25 percentage point net favorability rating in the same scale. That 41 point difference should have been electoral poison for Trump.

Based upon Gallup polling from the previous six presidential elections without the incumbent running for reelection, Trump should have lost by 9 points given the difference between Obama (the incumbent president) and Trump's rating. He only lost the popular vote by 2 percentage points and won the Electoral College, however.

Although six data points drawn from previous elections without an incumbent running are a far smaller sample size than I would like, the clear separation between 2016 and what previous years predicted makes it pretty clear that something unusual happened in 2016.

The easy answer is that elections without the incumbent running are also about the candidates who fill the shoes of the incumbents on their party's presidential tickets. In this case, Hillary Clinton was also very unpopular. In the network exit polls, Clinton had a net favorability rating of -12 percentage points to Trump's -22 percentage points. This made for the first presidential election in polling history in which both candidates were disliked by more voters than they were liked.

Trump lost pretty much every voter who held a favorable view of Clinton and a unfavorable view of Trump. Likewise, he won pretty much every voter who held a favorable view of him. It was among the 18% of voters who didn't like either candidate that Trump won the election. He took them by 17 points.

Still, there was no inherent reason to think that Trump would clean up among those who disliked both Clinton and Trump. Prior to the 2016 election, I thought the fact that Clinton was better liked than Trump meant she'd win handily. Put another way, I'm not sure we can necessarily dismiss the fact that Trump did better than what you'd expect given his low ratings.

In 2018, the fundamentals are considerably easier to distill. We can simply look at Trump's approval rating because he's the incumbent and midterms are generally about feelings towards the President.

Presidential ratings haven't predicted midterm results perfectly by any means, but there is a very clear connection. A president with an approval rating of 40% would suggest that a shift of 11 points away from the president's party in the House results compared to 2016. Given that Republicans won the House by 1 point in 2016, this would mean Democrats winning the House vote by about 10 points in 2018.

Depending on what polls you examine, Democrats could do better or worse than that in 2018. Gold standard polls suggest the Democratic lead on the generic ballot is down to 6 points in April. If the final result in November mirrors that, it would be another point in favor of popularity ratings not meaning the same for Trump as they have for presidents before him.

There are signs, though, that Democrats will do considerably better in the midterms. They are outperforming the partisan baseline in both congressional and state special elections by double digits so far this cycle. If these data points are more predictive of the final result in November, then Trump will not have done significantly better than we'd expect given his approval rating.

A strong Democratic result in the midterm would be worrisome for Republicans heading into 2020. It wouldn't be because midterm elections predict presidential year results. Rather, it would support the idea that Trump's poor ratings do matter. And when incumbents are running for reelection, their approval ratings tend to be predictive of the result.

Trump has maintained an approval rating of about 40% throughout most of his presidency. Generally speaking, having lower than a 48% approval rating on Election Day of a presidential year would make the incumbent more likely to lose than win. In fact, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver found in 2011 that a president with an approval rating of just 40% on Election Day would have less than a 10% chance of winning.

In such a scenario, Trump's only real shot of winning would be if the Democrats nominate another candidate who ended up as unpopular as Hillary Clinton.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 90942

Reported Deaths: 2021
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin26054922
Ramsey10572318
Dakota7216125
Anoka5801132
Stearns381223
Washington361055
Scott245833
Olmsted231927
Nobles193616
Blue Earth16116
Wright15407
St. Louis140034
Carver13607
Rice13088
Mower12935
Clay128140
Sherburne110414
Kandiyohi9332
Winona85218
Lyon6524
Waseca5338
Freeborn5223
Steele5222
Benton5153
Watonwan5064
Nicollet50416
Todd4792
Chisago4581
McLeod4522
Le Sueur4454
Crow Wing43918
Otter Tail4004
Beltrami3795
Goodhue3329
Martin3299
Pine2840
Itasca28213
Polk2754
Isanti2650
Douglas2622
Becker2482
Carlton2451
Cottonwood2190
Pipestone2159
Unassigned21252
Morrison2081
Dodge2020
Chippewa1971
Sibley1843
Meeker1832
Brown1802
Wabasha1800
Yellow Medicine1622
Murray1572
Rock1550
Mille Lacs1503
Redwood1420
Renville1367
Jackson1341
Faribault1320
Cass1313
Swift1231
Roseau1170
Houston1140
Pennington1121
Fillmore1110
Koochiching1113
Kanabec1098
Lincoln1020
Stevens931
Pope890
Hubbard830
Aitkin731
Big Stone700
Wadena670
Grant594
Lake570
Wilkin563
Norman520
Marshall501
Lac qui Parle470
Mahnomen461
Red Lake390
Traverse300
Clearwater260
Lake of the Woods211
Kittson120
Cook60

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 80698

Reported Deaths: 1275
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk15366259
Woodbury504263
Johnson501127
Black Hawk437586
Linn3808108
Story331517
Dubuque282341
Scott281827
Dallas269838
Pottawattamie200238
Buena Vista195112
Marshall176234
Sioux13723
Wapello127157
Webster120214
Clinton107419
Muscatine106854
Plymouth105820
Crawford10145
Cerro Gordo100221
Warren9326
Jasper77232
Des Moines7407
Marion7265
Tama69431
Carroll6375
Henry6204
Lee5997
Wright5631
Dickinson4876
Boone4788
Bremer4687
Washington43211
Louisa42515
Mahaska34619
Delaware3423
Franklin34218
Hamilton3153
Jackson3043
Floyd3023
Winneshiek2995
Clay2963
Benton2871
Hardin2841
Winnebago27511
Butler2622
Lyon2603
Clarke2563
Emmet25210
Poweshiek2528
Buchanan2511
Allamakee2486
Jones2483
Shelby2441
Clayton2343
Guthrie2315
Kossuth2310
Cedar2231
Chickasaw2220
Sac2200
Grundy2062
Madison2062
Cherokee2042
Fayette2002
Iowa1921
Mitchell1830
Howard1826
Harrison1812
Humboldt1763
Hancock1742
Calhoun1722
Mills1691
Palo Alto1630
Pocahontas1542
Lucas1526
Monroe15010
Page1420
Monona1401
Cass1362
Jefferson1341
Osceola1300
Appanoose1253
Taylor1241
Union1223
Davis1164
Van Buren1111
Ida1030
Worth1030
Keokuk911
Fremont900
Greene890
Montgomery885
Wayne842
Audubon681
Adair671
Decatur600
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Adams290
Unassigned70
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