Chuck Schumer Is Greatly Overestimating Trump’s Popularity

The midterms were a stunning referendum. Democratic leaders should act accordingly.

Chuck Schumer looking frustrated.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

With most of the votes from the midterm election tallied, we now have a better sense of the scale of the Democratic victory. It is historic. Thus far, Democrats have earned more than 8.8 million more votes than Republicans, flipped 39 seats, and are poised to win a 40th as election officials continue counting ballots in California. In terms of their House margin, this makes 2018 the Democratic Party’s strongest midterm performance since Watergate. The popular vote margin is also a record high for Democrats, representing a decisive repudiation of the president and his party.

This should make concrete a still underappreciated fact of the political landscape. Despite endless profiles and analysis of his most outspoken backers, Donald Trump is deeply unpopular.

I’ve made this point before, contrasting his approval with that of past presidents operating under similar conditions. Historically, low unemployment, modest growth, and the lack of a major, highly visible foreign entanglement has been a recipe for high presidential approval ratings. Even in an age of high partisanship and polarization—where partisan identities drive assessment of objective economic conditions—you would expect the president to benefit from our growing economy.

Instead, Trump has struggled with high disapproval and middling to low approval through almost all of his two years in office. A majority of Americans have disapproved of Trump for all but the first few weeks of his presidency. At present, according to FiveThirtyEight’s adjusted average of his standing, just 42.5 percent of adults approve of Trump’s performance, while 52.5 percent disapprove, for a net approval rating of -10 percentage points. Individual polls, such as Gallup’s most recent weekly survey, show Trump with just 38 percent approval and a whopping 60 percent disapproval.

The president’s unpopularity is more apparent when looking at individual concerns. The public prefers congressional Democrats’ approach to every issue other than trade and the economy over Trump’s, according to the Pew Research Center. More Americans want Democratic congressional leaders to take the lead in solving the nation’s problems than they do Trump, 55 percent to 43 percent. A bare majority of Americans, 51 percent, are afraid Democrats won’t spend enough time investigating the president’s scandals and misconduct.

The president is not a “Teflon Don,” immune to the slings and arrows of ordinary politics, nor does he represent a “silent majority” or speak for some class of “forgotten Americans.” Exit polls show the reverse: Democrats swept most demographic categories, winning voters under 50 by decisive margins and nearly splitting the vote among voters over 50. Break the electorate down by age and race, and the Democrats’ performance is even more striking; Democrats won (or had an even split with) every group other than white Americans 45 and older.

The Democrats’ record-breaking victory and the public’s clear exhaustion with Donald Trump should prompt a full re-evaluation of this political moment. Instead, when faced with Trump’s demand for $5 billion in funding for his border wall with Mexico, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered the $1.6 billion that Democrats had previously agreed on. This may not constitute support for “the wall” itself, but it does miss how the landscape has changed. The president’s immigration policies are unpopular. Schumer had political space to make a lower bid, or no bid at all. But he doesn’t seem to grasp the extent of his party’s political advantage or understand the value of opposition. He seems stuck in a past where voters rewarded compromise and bipartisanship, unable to see how this doesn’t apply to the Democrats’ relationship with Donald Trump.

In the news media, likewise, there’s still a preoccupation with Trump’s most dedicated supporters, as if they constitute a barometer for public opinion or say anything meaningful about the larger state of American politics. More illuminating—and more interesting, for that matter—would be an examination of the groups who drove the midterm results: black women, young people, and suburban white women. Those Americans and their communities are still under-covered, even as they shape and change the direction of national politics. That under-coverage is likely the result of many complicated factors, but it’s certainly tied to our continued faulty impression of the president’s standing.

With that in mind, let’s make the present political situation as clear as possible. Donald Trump and his party suffered substantial losses in the midterm elections, including significant erosion in traditionally Republican areas of the country. Indeed, if one took the Democrats’ popular vote performance and mapped it onto the Electoral College, you would have a solid Democratic win, underscoring the president’s electoral vulnerability.

Beyond elections, the public has rejected most of Trump’s agenda, from the once-heralded tax bill to his draconian immigration policy. His former campaign manager faces further charges for lying to the FBI, and Trump himself may be entangled in this latest development. Come January, he will also face the first meaningful oversight of his administration, from a Democratic majority that has the public’s confidence.

Perhaps now is the time to start treating Trump like what he is—a failing president, unable and unwilling to change course. Put simply, the public doesn’t need (or want) Democrats to be conciliatory and bipartisan, it wants them to be an opposition.