4 October 2018
All the President’s Voters
The midterm numbers.
by J R Thomas
It is a measure of the way in which President Trump has changed American politics that, at least outside the United States, the forthcoming mid-term elections are receiving little attention. Indeed, they are not receiving as much attention as normal even in the US – and yet they are more than usually key to the next two years of government. All eyes are still on the bouffant haired guy in the White House and his Twitter finger, even if his administration could be heavily discommoded by what may happen on 6th November.
The closer Donald watcher though may notice that the man himself seems increasingly aware of the importance of what happens next month. The President is suddenly starting to sound, well, presidential. This may be temporary or he may be learning on the job, but the Twitter comments seemed to have toned down, and the language is more restrained; the man is even joking in public. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of what may have changed than Mr Trump telling the FBI to carry out a full investigation of the allegations made by three ladies against his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
The formal Congressional hearing was last week. Both Judge Kavanaugh and his main accuser Professor Christine Blasey Ford gave evidence. Both were adjudged by most observers to have given what seemed to be honest and heartfelt testimony. That, of course, cannot be, given they are telling two contradictory stories. Certainly, it advanced matters regarding the allegations not at all. But the general feeling among Republican Senators, we are told, was that Judge Kavanaugh had sufficiently made the case for his innocence that he was likely to get confirmed on a formal vote (needless to say, that is not the feeling on the Democrat side). Another factor, to some extent on both political wings, and not just in governmental circles, is increasing disquiet that accusations of historic abuse by any man, however vaguely founded, are stalling and destroying careers; indeed that a lynch mob atmosphere is in danger of developing over long past events which cannot be proven or disproven.
Then the President, and maybe by now we should know to expect the unexpected, intervened with his instruction to the FBI. He only gave them a week, it is true, and they have already investigated, that is also true, so unless new witnesses emerge, they seem unlikely to add much to the unclarity. But what is the President up to? Has he become a seeker after truth; was he impressed by Professor Ford’s impressive testimony? Does he know more than the public? Maybe, and perhaps, and who knows, but also he may be rolling one eye in the direction of those forthcoming elections. Elections are always about that extra vote, or at least persuading voters to take the trouble to turn out for you. Mr Trump may well be wanting any voters who might be thinking of voting Republican to be convinced that the President is on the side of decency and justice and righteousness.
That cynically may seem slightly at odds with Donald’s image, but it does make political sense. Mr Trump’s supporters tend to be older, religious, traditional, often all three. They may not all be traditional GOP voters, but one of the themes which comes from analysis of those who voted Trump in 2016 is that they wanted a return to American values – which they felt Hillary Clinton and her modern Democrats were undermining. To a traditional American the Supreme Court is something special and wonderful and above the normal political fray. They would, if asked, prefer that new Supreme Court justices should be beyond reproach. Hence, Mr Trump is perhaps just making sure, so far as he can, that in the few weeks before the Midterms, no further stories emerge to damage Judge Kavanaugh – or the president. Better, he might think, to lose a court nominee but keep a friendly majority in the Senate.
Keeping that majority is a real possibility. Losing the House of Representatives though is a probable. The whole House is up for re-election and the polls suggest a narrow lead by the Democrats, helped by the large number of Republicans (39) who are standing down, and also some pretty vicious primary battles that have damaged the reputations of incumbents. That means that voter loyalty – always a strong factor in state elections – may be eroded and that might well let some Democrats in. But the polls are suggesting it will be tight, and much may depend who turns out on the day (bad weather traditionally favours the GOP). The President’s personal ratings have never been great since the day he won – nationally varying between around 36% and 42 % approving, but unlike most Presidents they have not gone down. That may help his party; though it should be said that local factors and loyalties are much more important than they are in British and European elections.
But the Senate. That is much more difficult to call. Only a third of the seats are up for re-election – Senators get the job for six years. As it happens, of the seats being fought, 26 are held by Democrats (in fact 24, one is held by nominal Democrat independent, and the other by the very independent Bernie Sanders who is unlikely to support the Republicans on any issue, ever) and only 9 by Republicans. Ten of those Democrat seats voted for the President in 2016 and are been very closely fought. Two of the Republican seats though, Nevada and Arizona (the former seat of the recently deceased Senator John MaCain), are likely Democrat wins. (Those states might sound like good old (cow)boy Trump country but have large Hispanic voting populations which make them marginals.) So the GOP only need, on the face of it, to win eleven seats, of which probably seven are fairly safely in the bag, to keep their Senate majority, even if they lose Nevada and Arizona. The crucial states, apart from those two, are Tennessee, Florida, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Texas. In all of them Trump continues to get over 50% approval ratings and the Republican contenders are leading at the moment. Four of them are Democrat seats. If the Republicans win those they keep their Senate majority, most likely. There is a potential wild card though – Texas, the seat of Ted Cruz – remember him? Ted is struggling in Texas. It looks like a safe seat and Ted is fighting a startlingly original campaign, but somehow has managed to mess up with his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, who seems to be capturing the Hispanic vote – even if he isn’t so rooted and Ted is. Chances are Ted will win – he had better if he wants another run at the Presidency – but it shows that local campaigns and candidates do matter.
Anything we did not mention? Oh yes. Presidential impeachment. That can only happen if two thirds of the Senate vote for it. A Democrat sweep of the Upper House could just make that two thirds work. That is not going to happen unless something really weird happens in the next month. But the President would sleep better knowing he still had a Republican majority. He too is getting to expect the unexpected.