Despite his denials, President Trump is very much the center of the 2018 election, political pros say — and the leader of the Republican Party will earn at least some of the blame should the GOP fail to hold its majorities in Congress.
Mr. Trump stirred the pot this week when he told the Associated Press he’s not on the ballot and, while he’s been able to boost some candidates in Republican primaries, he won’t bear responsibility if they lose control of the House.
“No, I think I’m helping people,” he said.
He later complained about the headline the Associated Press slapped its piece, saying it was taken out of context.
But he’d opened up the debate, and analysts said there’s little doubt the 2018 election is about Mr. Trump — and right now it doesn’t look good for him.
“The very act of holding the White House usually leads to the president’s party losing ground in the House and other down-ballot offices. By that metric, any president is responsible to a significant degree for down-ballot losses,” said Kyle Kondik, who studies elections at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “That this president has remained unpopular would make him especially culpable for any losses.”
In his Associated Press interview Mr. Trump said his belief that he’s helping rather than hurting comes from the GOP primaries, where he said he’s backed winners in 48 of 49 races in which he got involved.
“I don’t believe anybody’s ever had this kind of an impact,” he said. “They would say that in the old days that if you got the support of a president or if you’ve got the support of somebody it would be nice to have, but it meant nothing, zero. Like literally zero. Some of the people I’ve endorsed have gone up 40 and 50 points just on the endorsement.”
Analysts said that is true — the president has been a major force in GOP primaries. But they said that has little to do with the general election, where the electorate includes Democrats and independents, the vast majority of whom tell pollsters they don’t approve of Mr. Trump, and many who say they’re voting specifically to send a an anti-Trump signal.
Presidents’ parties regularly lose House seats in midterm elections, with only Presidents Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002 defying that trend in the years since World War II. But other presidents, such as George H.W. Bush in 1990, managed to limit losses.
So perhaps the better question is whether Mr. Trump will do better or worse than his predecessors.
James E. Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, runs a model that projects elections and he forecasts GOP losses from the high 30s to high 40s, with the middle being a loss of 44 seats. And that’s “absolutely” linked to Mr. Trump.
“If he enjoyed approval ratings in the mid to high 60 percent range as President Clinton had in 1998 and President G.W. Bush had in 2002, then congressional Republicans would probably not be looking at losses, certainly not at big losses,” he said.
Instead, Mr. Trump is hovering about the rate of President Obama in 2010, Mr. Clinton in 1994, President Reagan in 1982, and President Carter in 1978. Each of those presidents saw their party lose at least 15 seats, and some losses topped 50 seats, Mr. Campbell said.
A swing of just 23 would flip House control this time around.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster and data analyst, is predicting GOP losses of from 20 to 70 seats.
“If you have a president whose average popularity has been hovering at about 45 percent, which is eerily similar to the 46 percent of the vote he got in the presidential election, that matters very much if you’re a Republican in a swing district and you’re trying to run ahead of your party’s president,” the analyst said. “Republican congressmen in those marginal political districts have the negative weight of the president.”
Just how much negative weight could become clear even before Election Day.
Voters can already cast absentee or early in-person ballots in many states, locking in their votes with weeks still to go in the campaign. Between 2 million and 3 million votes have probably already been cast, Mr. Couvillon says.
And while the precise tallies can’t be known just yet, the rate of turnout between Republicans and Democrats in those early votes will shed light on which party is more enthusiastic.
Judging by the ratio of party turnout turnout in the primaries, Mr. Couvillon said this year is looking a lot closer to 2006, which was a Democratic wave against President George W. Bush, than 2010 or 2014, which were anti-Obama wave elections.
“I think our voter enthusiasm is where it needs to be, and more importantly, we have a great record to run on,” Mr. Ryan told CBS News in an interview. “The economy is booming, the military is being rebuilt, the Veterans Administration has been overhauled. We have de-regulated businesses so they can hire again.”
Mr. Trump, for his part, says he feels the same energy among voters as in 2016, when Republicans did lose seats in both the House and Senate, but managed to hold their majorities and to capture the White House.
Analysts said this year is different.
There is no Hillary Clinton on the ballot for voters to oppose — instead it’s Mr. Trump who’s the sole polarizing figure, Mr. Campbell said, and the president’s opponents are looking exceptionally motivated to “right the wrong” of their losses two years ago.
And Mr. Trump has been markedly unable to build beyond the 46 percent of the popular vote he won in 2016, with his approval ratings hovering just below that level.
“Whether President Trump wants to admit it or not, the president’s popularity does play a large part in terms of whether his party will lose or gain seats in the midterm,” Mr. Couvillon said.