But the same surveys also make clear that Trump is facing unprecedented resistance beyond that ardent base. National surveys consistently show his approval rating stuck at around 40 percent. That’s far lower than any other newly elected president at this point. His numbers are especially anemic among Millennials and minorities and far below the usual Republican performance with college-educated whites. Polls also show most Americans oppose many of his key policy initiatives, from building a border wall to repealing former President Barack Obama’s climate-change regulations.
These numbers suggest that Trump, who carried only 46 percent of the national popular vote, faces enormous headwinds in ever building sustained support from a majority of Americans. Indeed, he’s the only newly elected president in Gallup’s polling—since it started tracking presidents during the Truman era—who never reached 50 percent job approval in his first 100 days. Absent a perception-reshaping performance in a major crisis, Trump is likely to operate as, at best, a plurality president.
The Democrats’ post-election debate has mostly focused on how the party can win back blue-collar and older whites who defected from Obama in 2012 to Trump, particularly in the Midwest. But given Trump’s inability to expand his support, the more relevant question may be how Democrats can consolidate the roughly 55 percent of Americans who have consistently expressed unease about him. That question points the party away from Trump’s working-class base toward those white-collar whites (especially women), minorities, and Millennials expressing the most discomfort about his performance, qualifications, and agenda.
Whenever a political party faces an “either/or” choice, the right response is almost always: “both/and.” This Democratic crossroads is no exception. Geographically that means the party, in the races for both Congress and the White House, must regain ground in the working-class Rustbelt states where Trump outperformed other recent GOP nominees and the more diverse, younger Sunbelt states where he slipped. “In the long term, the future for the Democratic Party is Florida, Arizona, Georgia, eventually Texas ... and maybe Ohio goes the other way [toward Republicans],” said Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann. “But given the map for 2018, and even 2020, I think relying on just that and not fighting in those Midwest states is a mistake.”
Yet even while Democrats acknowledge the need to contest both fronts, they face genuine choices about where to place their largest bets. Matt Bennett, senior vice president at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, said the party’s principal opportunity is with white-collar suburbanites alienated from Trump. He points to the previously solidly Republican House district in suburban Atlanta where neophyte Jon Ossoff faces a June runoff election, after approaching 50 percent in a recent primary. “The obvious opportunity is in places like Ossoff’s district,” Bennett said. Those places “can deliver majorities [for Democrats] in the House and Senate and … the White House if we have a message that really lands.”