Predictions that 2010 midterms will be repeated in November are dead wrong

Predictions that 2010 midterms will be repeated in November are dead wrong
© Greg Nash

Approaching his first midterm, Trump is well ahead of where Obama was. Even more, Republicans appear further ahead of where Democrats were in 2010. Together these startlingly jolt conventional wisdom that November carnage is approaching for Republicans. 

It is axiomatic: The president’s party loses congressional seats in midterms. With the broader, less partisan electorate largely sitting them out, midterms hinge on motivation. Nothing motivates a party’s base to win midterms like losing a presidential race two years earlier. For these reasons, a president’s disapproval and his opposition’s agitation are prime proxies for how midterms’ outcomes. 

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None of this is new to Democrats. Eight years ago, President Obama’s first midterm cost congressional Democrats 6 Senate seats, 63 House seats, and their majority in the House. Two years ago, they were sure they would win the White House for a third straight election — something they had not done since the 1940s — against their impossible dream opponent: Trump. 

 

Currently, Democrats have a monopoly on aggravation and motivation. For the better part of a year, America has heard 2018 will be President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE and Republicans’ 2010. Democrats expect history — their history — to be repeated.

There has always been reason to doubt Republicans would face Democrats’ 2010 losses. Recently more reasons have surfaced. For one thing, 2010 Democrats’ seat losses came when they held 59 Senate and 256 House seats, well more than the 52 Senate and 241 House seats with which Republicans started this Congress.  

The more realistic comparison was always the 10 and 25 percent losses 2010 Democrats absorbed in the Senate and House. Such percentages would leave Republicans with 47 Senate and 182 House seats in the next Congress. Perhaps that is cold comfort, but there is growing evidence Republicans’ comfort could be much warmer. 

Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll, the pollster that most closely predicted 2016’s actual presidential popular vote percentage, provides a great measure of a president’s popularity and the opposition’s intensity with its strong approval and disapproval ratings. On 5/18, President Trump was 33/40 percent in these strong ratings. While that -7 percent seems bad, it is far better than Obama’s at the same juncture: -17 percent (25/42 percent) on 5/18/10. 

This comparatively favorable news is borne out by Real Clear Politics’ current congressional seat projections. Still six months away, RCP estimates Republicans currently have 48 Senate seats in the next Congress (with eight seats rated as toss-ups) and 203 House seats (with 31 seats rated toss-ups). Both are well ahead of where 2010 Democrats’ percentage losses would leave Republicans. 

Should Republicans just split the currently projected toss-up seats, this could put them even higher: 52 Senate and 219 House seats — five Senate and 37 House seats better than where 2010 Democrat loss percentages would put them. 

Finally, there is the underreported trend of Trump’s marked poll improvement. Last Aug. 3, Trump hit his presidential nadir thus far: 23/49 percent — 26 percent in the negative. In nine months, he has cut that deficit by a remarkable two-thirds. 

While Trump may never have widespread general approval, or even be positive, in the strong sentiment rankings, he has eliminated his huge negative deficits. This is critical to Republicans because it was from such largely negative strong ratings that projections of a highly negative and highly motivated opposition arose. The extremes in both categories appear now largely gone.

Trump and Republicans are demonstrably ahead of where Obama and Democrats were eight years ago. Further, their trend is one of substantial improvement. Obama’s in 2010 was not. While Trump cut two-thirds from his worst strong negative rating between last August and today, Obama roughly doubled his from August 2009 to May 2010 — and it would largely hold into the November midterm. With a strong economy, there is reason to believe that Trump’s rebound may continue. 

There are short- and long-term implications of this reversal of conventional wisdom. Clearly, Trump’s rebound could cut still projected congressional Republican losses in November. Holding the House and Senate would be hugely beneficial to the Trump administration — even if just to block an opposition legislative agenda — just as losing the House was detrimental to the Obama administration in 2010. Further, should Trump win reelection in 2020, it would raise the base to which his victory could add. 

Current indicators contradict conventional wisdom regarding Trump and a Republican midterm debacle. This does not mean the traditional midterm slump will disappear. But it does mean Republicans are well ahead of their worst-case scenarios and Democrats are unlikely to see their best case scenario — or their own history repeated. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 to 2000.