Midterms go from a referendum on Biden to a choice on Trump

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It has long been said that the midterm elections are only about the current occupant of the White House – a referendum on the incumbent and his party. But do the old rules and assumptions apply as they once did? Because of Donald Trump, they might not be this year.

American politics can be roughly divided into two eras: BDT and SDT, or Before Donald Trump and Since Donald Trump. What was true before he entered the scene is not necessarily so today. Trump broke rules and assumptions on his way to winning the White House, broke his duties further, and continues to break them. And that could haunt Republicans come November.

Trump has been the energizing force in politics since he announced himself for president in 2015, rallying voters behind his candidacy and once in office, unleashing an even bigger backlash against him. The November election will always be a reckoning for President Biden and Democrats, given inflationary pressures and disapproval of the incumbent’s job performance. But Republicans can’t escape the reality that Trump and his Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement are also part of the calculus that will take place.

Since Trump took to the scene, the election has gotten louder and angrier and, most notably, it has drawn millions more Americans to the polls. In 2016, about 137 million Americans voted in the presidential election, up from about 130 million in 2008 and 2012. In 2020, turnout jumped to 158 million. Biden got 15.4 million more votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Trump garnered 11.2 million more in 2020 than he got in his first campaign. Democrats’ popular vote margin has fallen from nearly 3 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020.

The presidential race was not an isolated example of the Trump factor. Equally surprising was what happened in 2018. For decades, turnout in midterm elections, which is always lower than in presidential years, fluctuated within a relatively narrow range: from an election of mid-term to the next, turnout has rarely increased or decreased by more than a few percentage points. Then came 2018, when the overall voter turnout was the highest in about a century, registering an 11-point increase from 2014, according to census data.

It was also the Trump factor – in this case, a revolt against him led by female voters that reshaped the contours of an election. According to a calculation by the Democratic firm Catalist, the Democrats obtained 23 million more votes than in 2014 and the Republicans around 11 million. Trump wasn’t on the ballot, but he was the biggest motivating force.

Some people might say what happened in 2018 was a reflection of longstanding trends in the midterm elections, but possibly on steroids – an unpopular incumbent whose party was beaten. True. For Republicans, it has fueled hopes that this November will be the reverse of 2018, another blow to the party of another president with low approval ratings.

While no one can predict if turnout this fall will approach what happened in 2018, all indications are that it will be another SDT election (since Donald Trump) and not necessarily in line with what was the norm before. .

Republicans started the year with high expectations, based on traditional assumptions: Biden’s approval ratings were deeply underwater and the inflation rate was at its highest level in 40 years, even as the economy continued to create jobs at a healthy pace. Republican leaders have talked at length about playing offense in 70 or more congressional districts.

Those calculations were seen by independent analysts as too rosy, if only because they meant the GOP would seek seats in districts Biden won by comfortable margins in 2020. But he wasn’t reckless. to think that under traditional midterm rules of engagement, the Republicans had clear advantages. Even many Democrats lamented how bad the climate seemed for their party.

Earlier in the year, White House officials concluded that the “MAGA” label was toxic to many voters and that, if applied broadly and effectively to the Republican Party, it could lift the election from midterm of a pure one-pick Biden referendum. between two philosophies and, presumably, two leaders, both unpopular.

On Thursday, Biden delivered a cutting speech in suburban Maryland that outlined the White House’s plan to employ this strategy over the next two months. He described the Trump-led Republican Party as having taken a turn toward “semi-fascism” and said, “MAGA Republicans are not just threatening our personal rights and economic security. They are a threat to our very democracy.

That message is half of what White House officials consider the most effective way to conduct the midterm campaign. The other will be to focus on Democrats’ recent legislative successes and, if the numbers hold, point to lower gas prices to offset voter concerns about high inflation this year.

Biden alone cannot change the midterm from a referendum on his presidency to an election of choice. But he has an unexpected partner in this effort: Trump and the Republicans themselves. Trump remains at the forefront of this election year, continuing his baseless claims about a stolen election, caught up in twin Justice Department investigations into his retention of classified documents and the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. , and demonstrating that the Republican Party is now truly the Trump Party thanks to the power of its endorsements to support questionable candidates.

Republican primary voters, guided by Trump’s endorsements, have in a variety of states nominated Holocaust deniers as candidates, who, if elected in the fall, will influence the 2024 election. ammunition for the accusation by Biden and the Democrats that the Republicans have become a MAGA-dominated political party.

Trump was also in the spotlight during the public hearings of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The hearings showed efforts by Trump and those close to him to overturn the 2020 election results — and the extent to which the 2024 election could be jeopardized if Trump cronies control the administration of the elections.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into Trump’s retention of highly classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida has kept the former president in the forefront of the news. The search of the premises sparked what is now a week-long story that is set to continue for weeks more. Trump not only broke the rules of politics, he may have broken the law.

The other factor that changed the landscape — the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade – also bears Trump’s fingerprints. The three justices he appointed — Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — provided clear margin for Justice Samuel Alito’s drafted decision.

The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization produced increased registration among female voters in a number of states and became a motivating force for many women and men this fall, especially independent voters. The massive vote earlier this month to keep abortion rights in the Kansas constitution is the clearest sign of the power of the issue.

The Kansas vote was unique and does not translate directly into candidate-versus-candidate contests. But the recent Democratic victory in a special House election in New York state, where abortion was a central issue, provided another indication of the issue’s power to redefine assumptions about November and spooked the Republicans.

Biden’s approval ratings have improved in recent weeks, but still threaten to be a drag on Democratic candidates. The Post recently reported that most Democratic candidates would rather campaign alone than invite Biden to their states. The president’s campaign rally in deep blue Montgomery County on Thursday could be an exception to that pattern.

But low approval ratings might not be as definitive an indicator of these midterm elections as those in the past. Democratic strategists saw some candidates’ approval ratings rise, even as Biden’s fell, suggesting the candidates’ fates may be somewhat decoupled from the president’s ratings.

It’s been another tough year for Democrats. But the polarizing effect of an ever-present and controversial former president means this midterm election may not live up to the standards of the past.

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