It’s axiomatic that’s Donald J. Trump has broken the traditional “rules” of behavior in the presidency.
After all, that’s how he got there in the first place. The pundits and prognosticators, myself included, first didn’t think he was serious about running. He’d flirted with the idea before and then backed away, so they figured he’d do so again.
Then they doubted his ability to even be viable as a candidate. There was a crowded GOP field with the top names, most prolific fundraisers and best-organized candidates all in the running. Trump couldn’t possibly be taken seriously among that cast, they figured.
When he passed their laugh test, they divined that he’d never actually capture the Republican nomination.
Finally, they concluded, he was toast in the general election. They helped Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE measure for drapes in the West Wing.
Trump never took them seriously. He did what he’d always done — banked on his celebrity in a culture of celebrity and used his social media skills and ability to dominate the old media to maximum effect.
Along the way he managed to say and do things that would have sunk any ordinary candidacy.
But he was no ordinary candidate. He had a core following, built over years of weekly visits to millions of living rooms through reality television.
That sliver of the electorate allowed him to vault into the early lead of a 17-person field and to maintain the pole position when the field narrowed.
The establishment consistently defined him and his political fortunes based on historical models. They’ve always been wrong.
Now the media are abuzz with analyses of the potential Trump effect in the pivotal midterm elections.
Historically, presidential approval and the economy have been the two biggest factors in congressional midterms.
The party occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. typically has had bad-to-very-bad election days. The average number of seats lost by the majority party is greater than the 23 Democrats need this fall to flip control of the House.
President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE’s approval ratings have shifted throughout the year. They’ve never been great, and right now the Real Clear Politics average job approval rating is just over 40 percent.
He’s also trending downward coming into the home stretch of the general election race.
There’s more to the snapshots of these opinion surveys, though.
First, there’s the “Bradley effect,” the popular name for social desirability status or the tendency of voters to misrepresent their preferences on sensitive subjects in order to be seen in the “best possible light.”
Named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American who led all the polls for governor only to be soundly defeated, the same phenomenon has applied to Trump in many places. Voters will tell pollsters they aren’t Trump supporters, but then will vote for his endorsed candidates.
More important, beyond the broad job approval rating is the question of how well he’s handling the economy. There President Trump scores well. Over 50 percent approve of the job he’s doing.
The Trump economy is performing ahead of what even the most optimistic predicted. At better than 4 percent GDP growth, the rising tide is lifting all boats. S&P and the Dow both hit record highs last week. Unemployment is at a half-century low. It’s gotten so good that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal MORE is out on the hustings trying to take credit for the thriving economy.
Voter behavior generally isn’t motivated by statistics, though. Democrats had hoped they could convince folks that, although the economy is doing well overall, it isn’t doing so well for them personally. That strategy doesn’t seem to be selling; witness the pivot by Obama and others.
How people feel about the economy is a more reliable indicator than any data. Surveys show that all the “right brain” stuff is going the GOP’s way on the economy. Confidence is up — and rising — in virtually every sector.
The president’s tweets and off-the-cuff commentary will, no doubt, cause headaches for some congressional Republicans. He’s not likely to veer off his chosen path of communication, though.
Each side’s base vote is pretty well locked in. For the independent and true swing voters, the president’s personality will be tested against his handling of the economy and their families’ personal situations.
Where you live will loom large in deterring whether the president is helpful this November. There are districts that are doing so well economically that the focus will be on presidential style more than policy performance. Largely in more affluent suburbs, these districts likely will determine control of Congress.
President Trump is a political anomaly. He’s a billionaire who connects with the lunch pail crowd. He has a following that couldn’t care less about his tweets, his alleged affair with pornographic actress Stormy Daniels or the conviction for financial fraud of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort. But there’s also an energized portion of the electorate that hates him no matter what he says or does.
There’s no nuance to Donald J. Trump, and no ambivalence on the part of the vast majority of voters. The small number of voters whose minds still can be changed will be thinking about whether they care more about presidential style or their own wallets as they head to the polls on Nov. 6, 2018.
Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns. He began his career on the campaign staff of Ronald Reagan. A nationally recognized expert in strategic communications, he is CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based media relations and issue advocacy firm.