It was telling that as Tax Day arrived this week, the media’s focus was riveted not on the massive tax overhaul that President Trump recently signed into law, but on James Comey, Stormy Daniels, and Michael Cohen.
In their own ways, these three players in the Trump drama symbolize the ethical storms and moral challenges constantly buffeting the president. Those tempests have imposed an unmistakable political cost on Trump—whose approval rating remains far below what might be expected in an economy this strong—and they represent an inescapable threat to Republicans in the November midterm elections.
What’s ironic is that these storms pose a challenge for Democrats, too: The intense media attention on Trump’s personal deficiencies might not actually move many more voters than they already have, and the economic message pushed by Democrats—one that’s rooted, in part, in the tax bill—is having a hard time breaking through.
That doesn’t mean the widespread personal doubts about the president don’t create risks for Republicans, particularly in those white-collar places where Democrats are gaining strength. Indeed, Comey embodies precisely the voters the GOP has been shedding under this president—even despite his unusually personal reasons to recoil from a Trump-led party. The former FBI director, after all, is a white man with a post-graduate education who’s long leaned Republican. And yet he views Trump as such a “stain,” that he no longer identifies with a party that resolutely defends him: “I just think they’ve lost their way and I can’t be associated with it,” he said earlier this week on an ABC News podcast.
Polls make clear that most college-educated voters share many of Comey’s doubts about Trump. Three national surveys released this week (ABC/Washington Post, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist) each put Trump’s approval rating among whites with at least a four-year college degree at 41 percent or less.
That’s far below what a Republican president would typically draw, and it is creating a powerful undertow for GOP candidates. Each poll showed that about half of college-educated white voters now say they intend to support Democrats in the congressional elections, while only about two-fifths intend to support Republicans. That’s a major shift from both the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when exit polls showed nearly three-fifths of college-educated whites preferred Republicans in House races. Two state-level polls reinforce the movement evident in these national surveys: This week’s Muhlenberg College survey showed a nine-point lead for Democrats among college-educated whites in Pennsylvania, and a new Monmouth University poll showed Democrats running even with those voters in New Jersey.
These attitudes are virtually certain to power Democratic gains in suburban districts, such as those in and around New York and New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Northern Virginia, and Los Angeles. They could even have an effect in more traditionally Republican-leaning territory near Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and Omaha.
But it remains a close call on whether Democrats can flip enough of those upscale, metro districts to regain the House majority. The party would have a much easier path if it could also capture at least some Republican-held seats that are more blue-collar and non-urban, in places like upstate New York, downstate Illinois, and Iowa.
Winning working-class voters is even more essential for Democrats in the Senate, where the party is defending 10 seats in states that Trump carried in 2016. Most of them are preponderantly white and heavily blue-collar, including West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, and Indiana.
It isn’t clear that the case against Trump’s values is a winning argument in those places. All three national polls released this week placed Trump’s approval rating among whites without a college degree below his commanding two-thirds in 2016. But he remained positive with those voters overall, and in each survey they preferred Republicans over Democrats for Congress by at least 13 percentage points. That’s despite last week’s nonstop news about Comey’s new book; the continued sparring between Trump and Daniels, the adult film star; and the FBI’s raid on Cohen, the president’s longtime “fixer.”
Trump has forged a powerful connection with many working-class whites by expressing their anxiety about cultural, demographic, and economic change. If there’s an opening for Democrats among these Americans, it’s through discrediting Trump’s argument that he’s championing working-class interests against powerful elites. For Democrats, the key is building a case that Trump, for all his posturing as a working-class hero, has increased economic insecurity for average families. They could do so by highlighting his attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, along with his support for a tax plan that mostly benefited the wealthy and corporations and will eventually increase pressure to cut Social Security and Medicare.
Those arguments, however, now rarely break through the tabloid maelstrom constantly engulfing Trump. Yet, as in 2016, personal doubts about the president may not prove disqualifying for enough voters to provide Democrats a winning majority. By contrast, even without much media focus in recent weeks, polls show that most Americans now tilt slightly negative on the GOP tax plan and slightly positive on preserving the ACA. The election results in November are much more likely to turn on which side wins the arguments over those policies than on whether slightly more or fewer Americans than today consider Trump unfit for the presidency. In other words: For a sunny outcome this fall, Democrats probably need more health care and taxes—and less Comey and Stormy.