Nov. 6 will witness the collision of two powerful political forces. Antipathy to President Trump will slam headlong into America’s current political geography.
What emerges from that crash will determine not only control of Congress, but also the course of our national politics.
Americans’ disdain for Trump is clear.
Since 1945, only one president, Harry Truman, has been as unpopular at this point in his presidency as Trump. (And Truman, who was a net 5 points worse off than Trump, went on to lose 55 House seats just over 60 days later.) Unlike every other president, Trump has never cracked 50 percent approval.
Moreover, as Gallup recently noted, only two presidents have ever elicited higher levels of strong disapproval than Trump: Richard Nixon in the midst of Watergate and George W. Bush during the lows of the Iraq War.
Hostility to Trump extends beneath the surface. By a 29-point margin, Americans do not admire him. By 25 points they think he is dishonest and untrustworthy. By 16 points people believe he can’t manage the government effectively, and by 13 points Americans say Trump doesn’t care about people like them.
Oddly, his only strength with the public is being perceived as intelligent.
Since the pioneering work of one of my teachers, Edward Tufte, in the mid-1970s, political scientists have seen midterm elections importantly as referenda on presidents. When voters are more upset at the president, his party loses more seats, and when they’re less upset, his party does better.
The evidence suggests that this year, too, voters are prepared to visit the sins of the president on Republican congressional candidates.
(This does not mean Democrats’ message should revolve around Trump—it shouldn’t—only that Trump’s troubles hurt Republicans.)
In 10 previous midterm cycles, pollsters asked whether Americans plan to use their ballot to show support for, or opposition to, the president, or whether their vote wasn’t about the president either way.
This cycle, more say their vote will demonstrate opposition to the president than in any of those earlier 10.
That’s evident in the generic vote as well. In only one previous cycle has the minority party led by the margin Democrats now enjoy. (In that cycle, the then-minority Democrats added 31 seats and took control of the House.)
On average, this year Democrats have led the generic by about 7 points. As we’ve noted, historically that number moves away from the White House party as Election Day approaches. Democrats now lead by an average of about 10 points.
Antipathy to Trump is obviously a tremendous force in American politics.
Absent a countervailing force, one might expect Democrats to pick up well over 30 seats — a feat we may yet achieve.
But the blue wave will run smack into another powerful force—America’s political geography.
We don’t have proportional representation. The national vote for Democrats bears no simple mathematical relationship to the number of seats won in the House.
Victories are won one-by-one in individual districts. Whether by dint of gerrymandering or homophily, or both, the political geography of House districts does not work in Democrats’ favor.
We end up wasting a lot more voters than Republicans do.
I’ve discussed this issue in previous columns, but look at it this way: nationwide, Hillary Clinton garnered 2.86 million more votes than Trump, but the man who became president won the most votes in 228 districts, while Clinton prevailed in 207.
To win the 218 seats required for a majority, Democrats need either to win crossover voters that have been rare in recent elections or create an unusual turnout differential, or both.
There’s little doubt that will happen to some extent—Democrats will win more than 207 seats.
But no one can yet say for certain exactly what the collision between political geography and antipathy to Trump will produce in November.
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.