Republicans Rising

Why things are looking up for Trump and his party.

President Donald Trump talks with members of his Cabinet, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, following the State of the Union address in the chamber of the House of Representatives on Jan. 30 in Washington.
President Donald Trump talks with members of his Cabinet, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, following the State of the Union address in the chamber of the House of Representatives on Jan. 30 in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA released a poll showing President Trump’s approval rating rising several points and Republicans making gains in the race for Congress. Trump’s numbers are still very low, and Republicans are still set to lose a number of seats in the House. But the poll nevertheless lines up with polling averages we have been seeing over the past several weeks and raises questions about just how well Democrats will do in November and just why Trump’s message on taxes and the economy seems to be working.

To discuss the state of the polls and the parties, I spoke by phone with Harry Enten, a polling expert and senior political writer and analyst at CNN. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Trump’s approval rating has ticked up, why immigration is a dangerous issue for Democrats, and what remains the Republican Party’s biggest weakness.

Isaac Chotiner: It seems like the conventional wisdom attributes Trump’s slightly better numbers to economic conditions and changing views of the tax cut. Is that your take?

Harry Enten: I think what’s very clear is that the uptick for Republican fortunes on the generic congressional ballot has been correlated very much with an uptick in Trump’s approval rating. I don’t think that there’s really anyone who’s doubting that. I think the question is: What is causing Trump’s approval rating to tick up a few points? Is it the tax bill, or is it merely that the tax bill is a confounding variable—that, in other words, it’s not surprising that the tax bill Trump is associated with has had its popularity rise as Trump’s own popularity has risen. It’s not clear which is causing the other.

That being said, the fact that the tax bill isn’t as unpopular as it was, say, a few months ago, just before it was passed, is certainly not a bad thing for Republicans. But if you look at the overall average of polls, I think you still see that the tax bill is not all that popular.

The memo that accompanied the Priorities USA poll theorizes that Democrats have been hurt by moving away from talking about the economy and health care. There has been more of a microfocus on scandals in the White House and so on, and that has allowed Trump some breathing room, because when his approval rating has been weakest, it’s been when the focus is on plutocratic—that’s my word—policies or taking health care away from people. Do you agree?

I’m not sure that a focus on the economy is a good thing for the Democratic Party. If you look at poll after poll after poll, Donald Trump’s approval rating is highest on the economy, more so than pretty much any other issue. That’s in good polls and bad. In fact, his approval rating overall has been significantly lower than you might have predicted otherwise, given his approval rating on the economy.

I do think that the fact that we’re no longer focused on health care, which was obviously a very bad issue for the president and Republicans at large, is probably a good thing for him. But I would argue that perhaps if you’re looking for one cause over another over the past few months, look at the Quinnipiac University survey. What I thought was very interesting was the question of who you credit for the gains in the economy, or who’s most responsible for the state of the economy. Is it President Trump or former President Obama? What we see over the past few samples that Quinnipiac has taken is that the percentage who say that Trump is more responsible has climbed. In fact, more voters now say that Trump is responsible than Obama, and given that the state of the economy is generally seen as pretty good by voters, it shouldn’t be too surprising that then we see an uptick in Trump’s approval rating, and vis-a-vis that, we see an uptick in the Republicans’ position on the generic congressional ballot.

Is that something you would expect to see the further you get away from a former president’s term?

If we go back and look at Obama vis-a-vis Bush, it took a number of years for people to start to credit Obama or blame Obama for the state of the economy. Remember, the economy back then wasn’t so good. It took considerably longer than it took for people to start crediting Trump on the economy. Yeah, I would say that that happened rather suddenly.

I’m not necessarily sure what the cause of that is, although it should be pointed out that Donald Trump, when he’s in control of his message, at his best, is really trying to be the “jobs president.” He’s the businessman. That was the thing that generally he tried to get voters to trust him on versus Clinton.

If we look at these other issues, like the Russia investigation or these small scandals, they have not tended to move voters that much, with maybe a few exceptions. I think that if Democrats can somehow make this again about Trump and make this again about health care or some other issue where Republicans don’t do so well, then that’s where they’re probably in a better position. It remains to be seen, for instance, if the recent scandals involving different members of the White House have an effect.

It does seem like the variety of stories, the Michael Wolff–type stories, the Stormy Daniels–type stories, are baked into the cake a little bit.

I think that’s completely baked into the cake. I think that anyone who voted for Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape came out isn’t going to be offended because perhaps he had an affair with Stormy Daniels. I don’t think they even care.

Just to bring this back to Democrats: It seems to me as someone who reads the news pretty closely that there’s almost no coverage of what Democrats are focusing on. It’s what the media is focusing on that matters. The reason that health care registered was not because Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi were giving a speech about it but because the media was focusing on health care. It wasn’t like Democrats were talking a lot about Stormy Daniels. The media was focusing on that. I think it’s actually a tough position for the Democratic Party because it really doesn’t feel like anyone’s paying any attention to them no matter what’s going on.

I think that’s a very fair point. Democrats hold none of the cards right now in Washington. It’s very difficult for them to commandeer the press and make it do what they want it to do. At the end of the day, the press is going to jump from one thing to the next, depending on what’s the news of the day. I’m generally speaking as someone who has looked at campaigns and analyzed campaigns and so on and so forth. Just go back to 2015, when the Republicans were running all against Donald Trump. What dominated was whatever Trump did during the day. It didn’t really seem to matter what the Republicans were saying, right?

That kind of reminds me of this situation insofar as I’m not sure it necessarily matters what Democrats are saying day in, day out. Now they can obviously control their own campaigns, what they put on the air during the campaigns and the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, but they can’t control the press. The press is going to go where the press wants to go.

In terms of immigration, if you look at the polls on protecting Dreamers, or if you look at the unpopularity of the wall, you see top-line poll numbers that suggest immigration would be a great issue for Democrats to talk about. But it also seems like immigration has been in the news, and it has not been successful for them. Do you think, that as someone who’s looked at polls for a long time, looking at top-line numbers on immigration is misleading in some way?

Yeah, I do think that the top-line numbers, especially on DACA and the wall, can be misleading for two separate reasons. No. 1, if you look at who cares about immigration the most, it tends to be Republican voters and Trump voters in particular. When you look at who Trump did best with among primary voters, his best issue was always those who said that immigration was the top issue during the Republican primary.

No. 2 is that the same basically held for the general election. Trump tended to run away with those voters who listed immigration as the most important issue. Intensity tends to be on the Republican side here. I would also point out that I don’t think that voters necessarily think of immigration in terms of these individual different topics. Building the wall, DACA, and so on, right? If they did then you would expect the Democrats to be doing considerably better on immigration.

I think a better question to ask is which party do you trust more on immigration, and it tends to favor Democrats by a considerably smaller margin. It’s single-digit at best. When you combine that only single-digit Democratic edge on that question with the intensity that the Republicans generally feel on it, I don’t tend to think immigration is a big winner for Democrats. Perhaps it is in certain states like California or maybe New York, but overall I don’t think it’s a big winner and I understand why red-state Democrats may in fact be concerned. I’m not going to say that that’s the be-all end-all issue and that Democrats in red states are going to be in big trouble if immigration is a main topic, but I’m fairly convinced, looking at the data, that it doesn’t really help red-state Democrats and probably doesn’t help Democrats overall all that much.

The intensity gap we’ve seen in these special elections: How much do you think that will carry over to the national election this November?

If you look at national surveys overall, you do see that Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting than Republicans are. That’s certainly a big turnaround from the [midterms during the] Obama years where it was the reverse.

Historically, you see that the midterm-turnout patterns are very different when there’s a Democratic president versus a Republican president. When there’s a Democratic president, Republicans can have a massive turnout advantage in midterm elections. When there’s a Republican president, that turnout advantage is significantly less, and basically zero. This year, given how unpopular Donald Trump is among the Democratic base, it wouldn’t surprise me if Democrats have a slight turnout advantage. I’m not saying that’s going to occur, but it’s certainly possible.

In special elections so far, in terms of Democrats doing so well, when there are only a few thousand voters that are casting a ballot, say, in an Oklahoma Statehouse special election, whichever side’s more enthusiastic is going to have an edge. But I think the fact that we have seen it across the board means that it’s not just a sign of intensity. It’s also a sign that some of those swing voters who voted for Trump have decided to swing back toward the Democrats, which is something that the Democrats better hope for in the midterms, because if they don’t get that, then they’re probably not going to be able to get the House and certainly not the Senate.