Mellman: Don’t bet on better numbers

Mellman: Don’t bet on better numbers
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Desperately trying to quell the panic growing in their guts and in their ranks, Republicans are spinning themselves dizzy trying to explain why President Trump’s approval rating will improve before the midterm.

Their desperation arises from the president’s extraordinarily low approval rating and the impact it will likely have on the 2018 elections.

President Trump’s approval rating is below 40 percent in the RealClearPolitics average and lower than that in HuffPollster’s calculation. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight pegs it at an even more sickly 37 percent.


Those numbers induce panic among Republicans because there’s a strong relationship between a president’s approval rating and his party’s midterm performance.

Only three times in the history of polling has a president been below 40 percent at the midterm — and those presidents lost between 29 and 55 House seats.

Even higher midterm approval ratings have brought about massive losses. Presidents Clinton, Obama and Johnson were in the mid-40s when Democrats lost 53, 63 and 47 seats, respectively.

On average, presidents below 50 percent approval have lost 37 House seats.

Republicans understand this, if only intuitively. Hence the rising panic.

Instead of chanting “serenity now,” a la George Costanza, they’re attempting to spin their way to calm by offering a number of arguments, some of which contain just a kernel of truth, while quietly thanking their maker for the gerrymander and praying it’s enough.


First, Republicans maintain the midterms are over a year away and a lot can happen. There’s that kernel of truth.

But, historically, the trend between this point and the midterm is downward, not upward. On average, presidential approval ratings have dropped over 12 points between this time in the first term and the midterm elections.

Only two presidents recorded any increase at all: Clinton registered a 3-point improvement, within the margin of error, while George W. Bush’s rating increased by 9 points. Of course, in Bush’s case, it took Sept. 11 to add those points.

Yes, lots can happen between now and the midterms, but it’s not likely that Trump will gain much ground.

Trump does suffer from historically low approval ratings — the natural level is meaningfully higher — so it’s possible he won’t fall further and may even make modest gains. But even if he picks up the full “Bush 9,” Trump’s approval rating will still be in a range where presidents past have lost 11 to 63 seats.

A related argument from Republicans posits that Trump just needs a few legislative victories, on taxes and health care, say, to improve his standing significantly.

Neither logic nor the historical record provides much support for this contention.

It is hard to imagine that passing a health-care bill opposed by margins ranging from 25 points to 42 points will provide a lift to anyone.

Since there is no tax bill, it is hard to say exactly how voters feel about it, but we do know there will be strong opposition to any plan delivering more tax breaks to the rich, especially one that imposes new taxes on the middle class.

Moreover, history provides scant evidence for the underlying premise that legislative victories improve presidents’ standing.

In contrast to the GOP health-care plan, the creation of Medicare was supported by more than 60 percent of Americans. Yet Johnson’s approval was a point lower, less than a week after signing, than it was just before passage.

President Reagan pushed two major tax bills through Congress, and neither altered his approval rating by more than a single point.

At the same time, history also tells us, every day of investigation into a president chips away at his approval rating. In some studies, days spent investigating the president are as powerful an influence on approval as the economy.

So whatever upward push Trump gets, the downward pressure is likely to remain for some time.

In short, there’s good reason for GOP panic.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.