The Slatest

Republicans Better Hope Voters Think About the Economy—and Forget About Trump—This November

President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday in Washington.
President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday in Washington.
Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

A new national poll out Wednesday tells us something we already knew: Donald Trump is not a popular president. According to the survey from Quinnipiac University, only 40 percent of voters approve of the job Trump is doing, far less than the 55 percent who disapprove. That translates to a net-rating of negative-15, a historically dismal showing by almost any standard—except that is, by the one Trump has set for himself during his first year in office.

The overwhelming disapproval is all the more remarkable given Americans’ strongly positive feelings about the economy. In the same poll, 70 percent of respondents described the U.S. economy as either “excellent” or “good,” the highest number to do that since Quinnipiac started asking that question way back in 2001. For Republicans, that number represents at least a glimmer of hope for riding out an anti-Trump wave.

A quick but necessary caveat: The Quinnipiac survey released Wednesday is but one poll (margin of error: plus-or-minus 3.3 points) among many, from one polling outfit among many. But in this case, the results line up closely with the major polling averages. In RealClearPolitics’ unweighted one, Trump’s approval rating is now at 42.4 percent, the highest it has been in about nine months, and his disapproval rating is at 53.8 percent, the lowest it has been in more than four. The number-crunchers over at FiveThirtyEight paint a similar picture with their weighted average.

The big takeaway, then, is that Trump’s approval numbers are indeed a little bit better than they have been recently—but they’re still 10 points or more below water.

Historically speaking, at least, that should matter come November’s midterms. It’s not really a question of if a president’s party will lose House seats in an off-year election, but instead a question of how many. According to the Cook Political Report, the party that controls the presidency has lost House seats in 35 out of the 38 midterms dating back to the end of the Civil War. The pattern isn’t quite as clear in the Senate, since only a third of its seats are up every two years, but it’s still pretty strong: The party that controls the White House has lost seats in 19 out of 26 elections since direct election of senators began in 1913.

And that’s before you factor in the president’s approval rating, which has traditionally been one the best indicators of just how bad those losses will be. According to Cook’s tally, there have been seven midterms elections since 1966 where a president’s approval rating “hovered” below 50 percent, and in six of those his party has lost at least two-dozen House seats. The sole exception? That was in 2014 in the middle of Obama’s second term. Democrats lost “only” 13 House seats that year—in no small part because they didn’t have all that many to lose to begin with after getting rocked in the 2010 midterms.

Trump also has a long way to go before anyone can reasonably say his approval rating is hovering anywhere near 50 percent. Could he somehow clear that threshold in the months to come? Sure, anything’s possible. But it’s hard to imagine it happening. His approval rating hasn’t actually been all that volatile even during an incredibly volatile first year in office. (And, remember, the 2016 campaign made clear that Trump has a higher floor but a lower ceiling than you’d expect from pretty much anyone else.)

But here’s where the but comes in. Those macro trends aside, Republicans have plenty working in their favor on the micro level. Of the 34 seats up in Senate, Republican only have to defend eight, half of which are considered about as safe as you can get. And over in the House, partisan gerrymandering and geographical quirks have created a playing field that tilts noticeably in the GOP’s favor.

So how will this all shake out? We’ll have to wait and see. But I will offer one prediction about what will happen between now and November: The partisan messaging battle of the next nine months will involve Democrats making everything about Trump, and Republicans making as much of it as they can about the economy. And politically, what matters far more than what indicators like GDP, the Dow Jones, or the employment rate say about the economy is how American voters feel about the economy. And on that, this new Quinnipiac poll—and plenty of others—should have Republicans feeling good.

Better still for a party tied so securely to Trump: A majority of respondents seem to be giving the president at least some of the credit. Fifty-one percent said they approve of the way he is handling the economy—his highest score on that of his presidency.

Still, if the midterms do turn out to be a test of the political adage that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Republicans may still be in trouble. Bill Clinton rode that James Carville mantra to the White House in 1992, but two years later—while the U.S. economy began booming after a brief recession—his party got crushed by a Republican Party united in its hatred of the president. That Newt Gingrich–led effort netted the GOP 54 seats in the House and another eight in the Senate that November. Clinton’s approval-disapproval split in the last poll just before Election Day? According to Gallup, it was an even 46 percent to 46 percent.

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Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.