Voter optimism holds key to GOP’s midterm hopes

Voter optimism holds key to GOP’s midterm hopes
© Getty Images

GOP strategists are hopeful that a booming economy and voters’ growing confidence on the country’s direction will dampen what might otherwise be a wave for Democrats in November’s midterms.

Republican pollsters are nervous about President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE’s approval rating and a generic ballot match-up that reliably favors Democrats, but a review of polling conducted before the last seven midterm elections shows the fate of the incumbent president’s party can rise or fall based on voters’ views of the direction of the country. 

In 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2014 — all wave midterm years in which the president’s party lost a large number of House seats — voters overwhelmingly said the country was headed in the wrong direction.


In 2006, when Democrats reclaimed control of Congress, more than twice as many voters said America was on the wrong track as those who said the opposite. In 2010, when Republicans stormed back to the majority, just 32 percent said the country was headed in the right direction, while 59 percent said it was on the wrong track.

Years in which voter attitudes are more positive have been better for the incumbent’s party.

In 1990 and 1998, the president’s party lost eight and five seats, respectively. Former President George W. Bush’s Republican Party picked up eight seats in 2002, when voters said the country was headed in the right direction by a 13-point margin.

“Right track/wrong direction is a great data point to use when considering the impact the environment will have on elections for the party in power,” said Brent Buchanan, a Republican pollster based in Alabama.

Democrats, however, may not need a deeply pessimistic electorate to win back control of the House. The party needs a net gain of 24 seats — including several vacancies they are likely to win easily — to wrest the Speaker’s gavel.

That hurdle may not require a wave, given the number of Republican-held districts Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength READ: Cuomo's defense against sexual harassment investigation MORE carried in 2016. But if voters feel worse about the direction of the country in November than they do now, Republicans will face a more difficult challenge in blunting the Democratic advantage.

In the decade after the worst recession in modern history, voters have remained almost entirely pessimistic about the future of the country. Only once in the last 10 years have more voters said the country is on the right track than the wrong one — when former President Obama was inaugurated.

But a strong economy has put voters in a better mood of late. Recent surveys have shown that between 34 percent and 45 percent of voters say the country is headed in the right direction. 

That number is still low by historical standards, and a majority, somewhere in the mid-50s, say the country is still on the wrong track. But that level of dissatisfaction is far below what was seen in polls taken before the 2014, 2010 and 2006 midterm elections.

Some pollsters see the right track-wrong direction question as an imperfect gauge of voter sentiment, one that is so rooted in the early days of polling — it was first asked by George Gallup’s pollsters in the 1930s — that it is effectively meaningless.

“We’re using railroad metaphors, for goodness sake,” said Andrew Smith, a nonpartisan pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “You can interpret it any way you want. When you say the direction of the country, does that mean economically? Does it mean technologically? Does it mean how we’re relating to China?”

But given 80 years of trend lines, the question can offer some lessons. Views on the direction of the country generally tend to correlate with the strength of the American economy, several pollsters said. Optimism surges in a bubble, then tanks when a recession hits. 

But though optimism has increased since 2016, it has not tracked with an economy that has sent unemployment levels to or near all-time lows. 

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the economy added 213,000 new jobs in June. The unemployment rate rose to 4 percent, likely because more people began looking for work, and the overall rate is down over the last year.

The disconnect may be because of Trump, whose approval rating has been in net-negative territory during his entire tenure. Though Trump saw an increase in his approval ratings in April and May, those numbers have begun to track downward once again after media coverage of immigrant families separated from their children began to dominate headlines.

“Typically, the economy, [direction of the country] and presidential approval are all linked,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster who worked for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign. “However, we have a booming economy but high wrong-track and low approval.”

Trump’s approval rating, 43 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics average, is below Obama’s at this point in 2010 — when Republicans took 63 Democratic-held seats and won back control of the House. But he is tracking higher than Bush was at this point in 2006, when just 38 percent of voters approved of the president’s job performance.

Some pollsters say voters’ views on the direction of the country are not a strong indicator of their overall mood, and that metrics like a president’s approval rating and the generic ballot are better.

As of Friday, Democrats had an average 7-point advantage on the generic ballot, according to Real Clear Politics.

Jon McHenry, a GOP pollster in Virginia, said the right-track question has always yielded a stark partisan split — Democrats are more likely to feel better about the country’s direction when there is a Democratic president, and vice versa for Republicans. But now, he said, Republicans are less likely to be optimistic because they are just as skeptical of establishment leaders in their own party as they are of Democrats.

“It's changed not just because people hate politics, but also because Republicans are less inclined to be happy with the direction, even when they control the levers of government,” McHenry said. “Republicans probably hate the establishment Republicans more than Democrats do.”

In recent years, Republican leaders have become targets of conservative ire over a host of issues, ranging from Bush’s support for comprehensive immigration reform to spending deals Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Florida becomes epicenter of COVID-19 surge | NYC to require vaccination for indoor activities | Biden rebukes GOP governors for barring mask mandates McConnell warns Schumer cutting off debate quickly could stall infrastructure deal Top House Democrat says party would lose elections if they were held today: report MORE (R-Ky.) cut with the Obama administration. At times, Trump has attacked members of his own party with the same vigor with which he attacks Democrats.