“There’s no question that Trump benefits when a critique of his tax and health care policies is not front and center—especially when voters are hearing Trump’s side of the story on the economy,” a Priorities memo said.
The group argues that the party needs to focus on economic issues and ignore whatever the latest Trump provocation might be.
And there are so many provocations that exhaustion may be a big part of the recent polling. The Trump presidency, following in the blueprint of the Trump campaign, has been a string of jaw-dropping scandals. The special-counsel probe, the scanty legislative ledger, and the low approval ratings are all products of the rolling disaster, but another product is fatigue: When there are so many scandals, they all start to blend together and fade. One retort to the anti-Trump slogan “This is not normal” is to point out that by now cataclysmic scandals are in fact the new normal. Trump’s improvement may reflect exhaustion with scandals and diminished anger at the president as a result.
Finally, Trump and Republicans may be tending toward an equilibrium. One open question about his approval rating has been how low he could go. The president may have finally hit a floor, at least a temporary one. Meanwhile, the strength of negative partisanship in contemporary American politics means that even as Republican and GOP-leaning voters may be disgusted with Trump, they will still slump back toward the party as the election nears.
Every time a legislative goal goes down in flames, Trump tweets angrily that voters need to send more Republicans to Congress. (Never mind the party’s dominance in both chambers.) Barring a fundamental shift in the electoral stakes, that remains unlikely. The president’s party almost always loses seats in a midterm election, part of a natural pendulum effect, and given Trump’s unpopularity, that is likely to be even deeper. It is a sign of Democratic strength that the party keeps winning special elections, even in conservative districts, and that an unusually large number Republican lawmakers are deciding to retire, a reliable barometer of what members expect to see happen in November.
The question is how big that Democratic edge will be, and that’s where the improved Republican polling plays in. Democrats would need a strong slate of wins to take back the House and a near-miracle to take back the Senate. But Democrats still don’t have a unified message. Even as Priorities pushes a bread-and-butter-focused thrust, others contend that it would be silly to pass up the political gift of Trump’s deep unpopularity. Will Stancil argued in The Atlantic last week that Democrats have abandoned the strategy of total resistance to anything Trump does, and that has paralleled a slip in their numbers. There are compelling arguments for each tack, but for now the party seems unsure which to buy.
Democrats do have some time to figure it out—after all, it’s only February. The White House’s fumble on Porter, and the president’s own strange standoffishness, have not yet filtered into public opinion. The Mueller investigation continues. Trump’s own capacity for self-inflicting damage cannot be ignored. Yet the tighter numbers over the last week show that Democrats are unlikely to have the cakewalk that some hoped a Trump-era midterm election would represent.