But a GOP-controlled House leaves Trump with fewer excuses for 2020
The Great Dealmaker has not had the greatest first seven months in the White House. No wall, no healthcare reform, a chaotic West Wing and innumerable self-inflicted PR gaffes are not an ideal start to a presidency. Ironically, the one president that Trump rates himself behind is perhaps the only one to have had a worse start: at least there’s been no civil war so far.
Those failures and errors, however, have produced record-breakingly low approval ratings. The Gallup polls – a series that goes back to 1945 – repeatedly find disapproval scores in the high 50s and a net rating around -20. For comparison, only two presidents since WWII have received any net negative ratings at any time in their first year (Ford and Clinton), the lowest being a -12 given to Clinton in June 1993. In fact, Trump’s rating with all voters at this stage is almost identical to GW Bush’s among liberal voters.
For Trump, these scores are nothing out of the ordinary. He repeatedly polled badly on approval ratings through the primaries and general election in 2016 but was saved firstly by the strong support from a sufficiently sizable minority, and secondly by a series of poor opponents, including Hillary, that he could campaign negatively against with effect. But that shouldn’t distract from the underlying picture.
Before we get to 2020, there’s the not insignificant matter of the mid-terms. You might reasonably expect a landslide of Democrat gains in these. After all, the Republicans control the House, so have plenty of seats to lose, and on previous occasions that presidential approval has dropped below 50% – particularly when combined with the president’s party running the House, as in 1994, 2006 or 2010 – there will be substantial losses.
That, however, ignores the massively Gerrymandered battleground the Democrats have to fight on. This isn’t a subjective point: the ability to draw up congressional (and other more local) districts is one of the spoils of victory in American political culture and a successful party will redistrict in its own favour where it has the chance. In recent years, the Republicans have had a lot of chances. On top of that, the Democrats’ votes are simply inefficiently clustered to begin with: as in any single-member system, there’s little advantage to piling up huge majorities in individual seats.
The net result of these two factors is that despite the Democrats currently holding a lead of about 7% in generic polling, one website translates that to a likely Republican majority of at least 20. That would mean a net Democratic gain of a dozen or so seats but it’d be poor pickings for such a healthy lead. Of course, the real elections will be contested by real people, not generic parties, but the most important element of that fact is the incumbency element, which again should tend to mitigate Republican losses.
Why does this matter when Trump can’t even get his plans through a GOP-controlled House? There are of course practical considerations: a Democrat-controlled House would surely gridlock the system and make full-on government shutdowns far more likely, for example. But perhaps more significant from a betting viewpoint is that it’s in the House that impeachment proceedings would begin and if the Democrats controlled the business of the chamber and the chairmanships of committees, that would significantly ease the path to an impeachment case being brought (leave aside precisely why a case might be brought – a ‘high crime or misdemeanor’ is whatever Congress says it is, meaning that the action is ultimately a political process, not a legal one.
A stand-off between House of Representatives and the Oval Office would be unlikely to do much for either side’s standing with the public (and the more intense it got, the greater the damage would likely be). Trump would undoubtedly play the victim and he’d have enough of a case that those moderately sympathetic to him would give him the benefit of the doubt. Likewise, the loss of control would provide an ideal excuse for the failure of his policies to be implemented.
At the moment, by another irony, the advantage the GOP has in the House race is therefore lessening Trump’s chances of re-election. (There is the risk that Trump might go before 2020 but it’s nothing like as probable as the odds have it: a two-thirds majority to convict an impeachment is a very high bar). However, today’s polling is, obviously, not set in stone. There is scope for movement to the Democrats during the next 14 months and the flip-side of the hugely efficient spread of seats for the GOP is that they are more vulnerable to heavy defeats, with fewer outright safe-seats and many more with smaller but usually adequate majorities. There is a tipping point where the bias goes the other way. That said, the increasing polarity of US politics and the historic rareness of leads of more than 10% on election day suggest that such scope might be relatively small.
Put all this together and you come up with three conclusions. Firstly, the Republicans stand a good chance of holding both Houses in 2018. Secondly, that impeachment proceedings, if any are begun, are likely to fizzle. And that thirdly, that the 2020 presidential race should be a walkover for the Democrats as long as they can nominate a competent and inoffensive candidate.