The paradox of Trump and midterms

The Harvard Caps/Harris Poll this month show two rather remarkable figures on President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE. On the one hand, 57 percent approve of the job that he is doing on the economy, even before the upbeat jobs numbers on Friday, yet when asked if they personally like Trump, only 27 percent said “yes” in a remarkable divergence between policy and personality that will play itself out in the final midterm vote tallies.

When working for President Clinton, we developed the theory of a Saturday night Clinton and an Oval Office Clinton. It was the Saturday night side of him that caused all the trouble. Today there is obviously an economic Trump, more knowledgeable than any recent president about what makes the market tick, and a Twitter Trump, who throws verbal bombs that explode daily in the public square, dragging down his image.


Of course, there is an entire complex of billionaires, partisans, and some in the media devoted to bringing down Trump. So, in fairness, it is not all him, though he seems to revel in the combat that holds him back. It is important to remember that George Bush, the guy everyone wanted to have a beer with, sank down to the 20s in his job approval and was labeled a war criminal and an idiot, shunned even at the Republican Party convention. Almost no one in politics today has a net positive image, and both Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Armageddon elections to come Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE are viewed rather harshly, almost unchanged, and possibly even worse than during the campaign.

Objectively, the economic Trump has racked up surprising results in a short time, adding more than 5 million jobs after a long expansion that started under President Obama but had stalled. Wages are rising and millions have gone back to the labor force, and an expanded base of workers has a multiplier effect of expanding the consumer and tax base of the country. Trump promised to bring back the coal industry and he did.

Trump even renegotiated NAFTA, and most observers laughed at the idea that he could use threats of tariffs as negotiating chits to get results for American workers who had been abandoned by previous presidents. Obama scoffed at bringing back manufacturing jobs to America as a fantasy, yet hundreds of thousands of such jobs have returned.

Trump also deployed a new kind of economic warfare. When the Turkish government refused to hand over a political prisoner, he imposed sanctions that wrecked the Turkish currency. It took only a few months for the Turkish prime minister to rethink his relationship with the United States and send back Pastor Andrew Brunson. The Chinese first laughed at the demands by Trump to stop stealing our intellectual property. Several hundred billions of tariffs later, and a nearly 30 percent decline in the value of Chinese assets, and Beijing is ready to come to the table.

No recent president has understood the ways of modern economics in this way, and used it to get diplomatic victories. Trump transformed the Republican Party from a business elite and free trade party to a working class and nationalist populist party, leaving the old party and much of its leadership in the dust. The policy wins, economic success, and the Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughHow Cruz Supreme Court case could lead to unlimited anonymous election spending Will the justices end race-based affirmative action?  Are the legal walls closing in on Donald Trump? MORE fight united the Republicans around Trump.

In the Harvard Caps/Harris Poll, voters say it is Trump, not Obama, who gets credit for the economic revival by a margin of 47 percent to 21 percent. Even 38 percent of Democrats give the most credit to Trump for the economy, a stunning number for any Republican president, let alone for the bete noire of the Democrats. When it comes to the economy at this point, even Democrats look to Trump as delivering on his promise.

But what about Twitter Trump? An overwhelming 88 percent of voters said they wish he would tweet less. On virtually every presidential personal characteristic, Trump receives the worst ratings I have ever seen in more than 40 years of polling. A majority at 58 percent say the president is “vulgar” and only 23 percent say he is a good role model for children. Only 31 percent say Trump sets the right tone for the nation.


Only 27 percent see him as earning the respect of those people who did not vote for him, so these negative perceptions extend even to those people who support Trump and approve of the job he is doing as president. President Clinton always had personal ratings that trailed his job performance but it was 6 points or 7 points lower, not anything like the difference between the job approval and personal ratings of Trump.

But two positive presidential personal qualities did emerge from the list, with 63 percent of respondents agreeing Trump is a disruptor of conventional Washington politics, and 55 percent crediting him with being dogged in his determination to enact the policies he promised. These are two qualities that most recent presidents have failed in, but they generally got right the basics of carrying out the office with dignity.

So here we have the minds of midterm voters going to the polls. They are thinking about four basic items, which are attitudes towards health care, immigration, the economy, and Trump. The Democrats have reversed their fortunes and now have a significant edge on health care, thanks to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE, who never had an acceptable plan and then quit. Immigration is a divisive issue that both ignites Trump supporters and the opposition, while reinforcing all his negative personal qualities. In swing areas, he is likely winning that issue while losing it on the coasts. The economy is now a clear victory and concerns about personality are a clear defeat. This all makes for confusion, which is why many polls are so close.

Conventional wisdom has us heading for a split decision in the midterm elections with Democrats taking the House and Republicans expanding their margin in the Senate. This prediction is in line with the minds of voters with wins and losses for both sides. However, if the Republicans win both chambers, then it will be a victory for the economic and immigration policies of the president. If the Democrats win both, it will be a defeat for the president on his personal fitness for office and health care policies. It is up to the voters now to send the politicians their message.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.