As election night 2016 grew “long in the tooth,” my phone battery quit. Talking with campaign friends, I was eager to recharge it. I was watching returns at a local Washington DC restaurant. An employee kindly offered to recharge the phone. As he did, another patron blurted “Well, looks like she’s going to win!” The night was yet early. Clearing my throat, I said simply: “I voted for Trump.” After a pause, the other patron edged over, looked around him, then told me quietly, “me too.” Boom tick.
Exhibit One. Unexpected results attend a public so divided that people feel compelled to tell others they are voting one way, when in fact they have voted the other. Does that tell you anything about the accuracy of polls? Which happened to be inaccurate right up to the end of election night? Maybe so.
Does it tell you anything about Midterms? Maybe so. Could it be that polling on House and Senate races, which the Democratic Party have turned into bold referenda on President Trump, his policy agenda, his Supreme Court pick, and his economy – could be wrong? People fudging a bit? Could be.
Exhibit Two. Think about this: Two years ago, Candidate Trump had zero experience serving in government, nothing but ideas and a life in business, along with a trail of allegations, insinuations, and gesticulations to match his daring aspirations.
Today, President Trump points to a stunning four-percent growth rate, lowest unemployment numbers on record in many key demographics, reduced federal regulation, a massive national tax cut, end of Obamacare penalties, rebalancing of international trade (especially with China), nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, renewed respect in the Middle East, increased partner funding by NATO countries, and the near end of ISIS. To that, add a Supreme Court justice, and a large basket of promises delivered on – with others yet to be real, awaiting a more cooperative Congress, such as the much-discussed “wall.”
In short, he now has a record to run on – and among his many pledges, promises and positions, he has made more real than any president since Ronald Reagan. If those indicia of achievement do not impress all Americans (and apparently they do not), they do objectively give Americans data points to evaluate.
Most will find his policy agenda is helping them, as individuals. It is also reshaping national policy, again in ways closer to Ronald Reagan (and Harry Truman) than Senator Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Which way will that understanding cut, now that his record is clear? We will see.
Exhibit Three. The Democratic response to Trump policy shifts has grown increasingly shrill. Calls for direct confrontation, with phrases like “cannot be civil,” “kick them,” “get in their face,” have come from leading Democratic figures, including a former presidential candidate, former attorney general and current congresswoman.
The turn – an appearance of spoken and unspoken consent to something akin to physical engagement, if not outright street violence, is inherently jarring. Most Americans – members of both parties – are not comfortable with calls to move from protected free speech to either prior restraint, or something worse – incitement.
No one is saying how many Americans find this unsettling, but reason exists to think that this is not how most Americans view their own participation in the political process, even if extremes on both sides may default to such an unreasoned, untethered and historically dangerous course. Most Americans likely see any call to physical confrontation anathema to their view of our best traditions – and more importantly the law. Will this cause hesitation among those who might otherwise turn out to support opposition? Will it cause those who favor rule of law to think twice? We will have to see.
Exhibit Four: Finally, recent acts of heinous public violence tend to be – in modern America – swiftly turned into political fodder. Frankly, this turns off most Americans, whatever the political objective, and whoever is seeking to turn hurt to political advantage.
As a group, Americans empathize – or always have – with our fellow Americans. We are not eager to see politicians trade blame for acts of obviously deranged, unthinking individuals. That cuts both ways.
But look closer. What leaders – and what parts of the modern media establishment – shout loudest in the aftermath of events attributable to obviously deranged persons? Which party has recently turned somber, tragic events into instant advocacy for restrictions on free speech, gun ownership, religious liberty, and association on college campuses? I will leave the answer to you, could affect turnout.
In the end, Midterm elections are historically bad news for a sitting president. That is a matter of record, not opinion. In the US Senate, if there is roughly even turnout, the likely outcome would be Republican control – and perhaps even a seat or two of gain. In the House, with every seat up, control will surely be determined, in large measure, by turnout.
But there are other factors to consider. And the four above are not inconsequential, even if impact is unclear. Americans think more than political leaders give them credit for.
Are polls we read accurate? They were not in 2016. Is the President more popular than he was as a candidate, election about him? Hard to say, but data is pouring in – and his leadership is making a difference. Are Americans comfortable with the turn toward physical confrontation, away from words as the tool of democratic governance? Hard to say, but most are averse to street violence. Are Americans content to see tragic events politicized? Generally, I think not.
Where does this all lead? Hard to say, and no one can predict. But there is a ground rule worth remembering: Expect the Unexpected in Midterms. This may be the exception that proves the rule.