U.S. President Donald Trump’s approval rating — 37 percent according to the most recent Gallup poll —is shockingly low for an office that should be enjoying its political honeymoon and advancing its signature legislative accomplishments. Instead, he is watching any possible accomplishments collapse on the Senate floor — if they even make it that far — and new revelations of his campaign’s collusion with the Russian goernment are revealed almost daily. And yet he remains politically viable and will probably continue to be.
For that to change, Democrats would need to capitalize on his low approval rating in order to make gains of their own, and it’s not clear if they can do that. Their 2016 strategy was based almost exclusively on the assumption that Hillary Clinton could take advantage of his unpopularity, but that overestimated their ability to keep intact the coalition that twice elected Barack Obama. The trick will be to win back Obama voters who defected to Trump while keeping the base engaged and fired up. In other words, Democrats need to convince the ideologically-driven Bernie Sanders wing of the party to share a tent with voters who were willing to give a racist and nationalist the benefit of the doubt. Giving those sets common cause will be extremely difficult.
Their first test will be the 2018 midterm elections. Historically, the president’s party always loses seats in the first set of midterms, but Democrats will need to defend 25 seats in the Senate — more than half of their delegation — and 10 of those are in states that voted for Trump.
Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, Democrats need to defend 12 seats in districts that Trump won and gerrymandering virtually closes off the possibility of gaining a majority (Democrats need to win 24 seats to win control of the House).
It won’t be easy for Republicans either—they will need to defend 23 House seats in districts that Clinton won, and defend 27 of 38 state governorships (vital because states set most of the rules for voting and elections, including congressional district boundaries, thus setting the stage for national elections).
But Trump remains popular with his base and is still acceptable to Republican leaders. Yes, his support among Republicans dropped five to 10 percentage points from the 90s to the 80s, but his support among Republicans is the same as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush at the same point in their presidencies.
He polls above 50 percent in the counties he won according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and 74 percent of Republicans believe he is making significant progress on his agenda according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Given that Trump delivered states once thought to be nearly unwinnable for Republicans (namely Michigan and Wisconsin) and the favorable midterm map, Republicans will almost certainly do their best to keep Trump above water to maximize their electoral gains.
For Republicans, the key to a strong showing in the 2018 midterm elections will be to drive enthusiasm and by extension voter turnout. The health care mess will depress GOP diehards who have waited seven years to repeal Obamacare, and there is an enthusiasm gap of 1:2 between Republicans who strongly support Trump and Democrats who strongly oppose him.
But the enthusiasm gap may not translate into turnout among Democrats: For example, in a national survey of 5,385 conducted by SurveyMonkey, Trump’s job approval among African Americans is only at 17 percent, but only 61 percent say they plan to vote in the next elections (in contrast, 84 percent of older voters — who gave Trump a 48 percent approval rating — expect to vote).
But Trump will not make it easy on Republicans. He certainly won’t return the favor for keeping him afloat by campaigning on their behalf and he’ll likely even blame them for anything that’s gone wrong. In fact, the White House will probably even support primary challenges to unseat more moderate Republicans like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
The debacle over the health care bill revealed that the ceiling on what Trump can accomplish with Congress and his own Republican Party is extremely low. His administration’s learning curve is steeper than normal (and may even be backsliding), he and his team have no interest or patience in politics-as-usual, are riven with power struggles and visible inexperience, and show no interest in the gritty work involved in passing legislation.
In effect, Congress and the White House are now independent actors and the symbiotic relationship that would motivate congressional Republicans to support the president in exchange for helping move their legislative agenda is significantly diminished. Given that Trump also polls the lowest of any president since modern polling began, the motivation to stand behind him certainly has an expiration date. What it will take to reach that point is the question.
For context, George W. Bush’s presidency endured two wars, financial collapse and recession, the loss of both chambers of Congress, and a horribly mismanaged response to a cataclysmic natural disaster before he became a political liability for his party. Opponents of Trump should hope that it will not take the same for him to face the same fate.
Paul Nadeau is a private secretary for a member of the Diet’s Lower House as well as an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.