This is the second vignette in my new series aimed “simply to try to keep us all focused on what really matters”.
Is Robert Mueller moving the numbers?
It may, of course, just be a coincidence but the past four weeks or so have seen, on the one hand, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s approval ratings go up while, on the other, President Donald Trump’s have gone down. Both these moves kicked in immediately after the 21 August guilty pleas by Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and guilty verdicts against the former head of his campaign team, Paul Manafort.
A recent poll by SSRS on behalf of CNN is typical. It puts approval of Mr Mueller’s handling of the investigation at 50%, up three percentage points relative to their poll taken shortly before 21 August; and has Mr Trump down three points at just 30%. These shifts are not huge — indeed, they are within the statistical margin for error for the poll. But their validity of the downtick for Mr Trump, at least, is supported by the comparable shift in his overall approval rating, with the authoritative RCP Average putting him at 43.4% on 21 August (ie on a par, more or less, with where he has been since mid-April) since when it has been a steady slide back to 40.9% today.
If maintained — and it will be interesting to see if it is sustained in polls taken in the immediate aftermath of Mr Manafort’s 14 September ‘flip’ — this stands to have at least some impact on the outcome of the midterm elections on 6 November. As the pollster Gallup recently pointed out:
“The President’s party almost always suffers a net loss of US House seats in midterm elections. However, losses tend to be much steeper when the president is unpopular. In Gallup’s polling history, presidents with job approval ratings below 50 percent have seen their party lose 37 House seats, on average, in midterm elections. That compares with an average loss of 14 seats when presidents had approval ratings above 50 percent.”
That average loss of 37 seats is particular interesting in that it fits very closely with current forecast of the polling gurus at FiveThirtyEight that the Republicans will suffer a net loss of 38 seats on 6 November (see chart above) — which is coupled with a better than 80% probability of the Democrats winning control of the House and a forecast 8-10pp margin in the popular vote. Although there is nothing new about forecasts that the Democrats, who need a net gain of 23 to take control, will secure a House majority, this is around 15pp higher than the consensus forecast in mid-year and nine percentage points higher than on 21 August.
However, the slide in Mr Trump’s approval ratings, even if it is sustained (and we can be sure he will be doing everything he possibly can to shore up his base between now and the midterms, eg hitting China, and quite possibly others, with more trade tariffs), does not look to be enough to give the Democrats control of the Senate too — FiveThirtyEight giving the Republicans a two-thirds probability of retaining control there. Nevertheless, the trend over the past four weeks or so is clearly sufficient to cause yet more concern among the ranks of Republicans, many of whom are already minded that the US’s strong economic performance may not be sufficient to save them despite the post-1992 'conventional wisdom'.
[Note: For any reader who, like I am, is 'wonkish' about these things, here is the first of three Nate Silver analyses (the other two are still to be published) of why incumbent Democrats defending Senate seats may be better placed in terms of 'the fundamentals' than the polls currently suggest they are. We can be sure Republican strategists have done their homework on this too.]
And suddenly, just this week, the possible loss of the Senate has become even more critical. A few days ago, Mr Trump’s nominee for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, looked to be firmly on track for confirmation despite strenuous attempts by Democrats to block him. As Edward Luce wrote in the 17 September edition of the Financial Times (subscriber access only):
“Mr Kavanaugh’s confirmation would seal a 5-4 conservative majority that could dominate the court for decades after Mr Trump has left office. The judge has refused to say he would vote to uphold the Roe v Wade ruling that gives women the right to abortion. He has likewise declined to say whether he would uphold the equally seminal 2015 Obergefell v Hodges ruling that legalised same-sex marriage. These are the two greatest landmarks of social change in the last generation. Reversing them is an evangelical priority.”
Given how hugely important this is to Republicans (perhaps especially Mr Trump who has personally nailed his colours firmly to the mast, consistent with my previously noted opinion that he will do everything he can now to shore up his base), I still find it hard to believe that Mr Kavanaugh will not be confirmed even though it is certainly not impossible that the additional Judiciary Committee (televised) hearing called for 24 September will throw up something which will cause two GOP legislators to defect if/when the issue comes to the floor of the Senate. On balance, I think all 51 will conclude that the undoubted upside of Mr Kavanaugh’s appointment coupled with the uncertainties around the midterms more than outweigh the price which confirmation would likely oblige the GOP to pay in terms of further firing up Democrats (and especially women Democrats) to go out and vote on 6 November.
This being said, there is a plausible alternative scenario, ie that the party leaders, including Mr Trump of course, agree to leave the seat open until after the midterms simply in order to encourage Republican supporters to go out and vote in even larger numbers. After all, further incentivising their base, especially evangelicals, to go out and vote makes perfect sense given the persistent ‘enthusiasm gap’ between them and Democrats. But this would be a move which could easily backfire and would be a huge gamble given what is at stake.
Quite apart from its major longer-term implications, missing this opportunity would likely seriously damage Mr Trump’s popularity with even his most determined backers. In such circumstances, imagine, if you will, that Mr Mueller comes up with conclusions which provide reasonable grounds for impeachment — and/or that the semi-detached case revolving around Mr Cohen throws up something similar. Then imagine (which is markedly easier if one accepts my initial premise) that a Democrat-controlled House brings an impeachment motion against the President. The conventional wisdom — with which I largely go along still — is that, damaging though this would be to Mr Trump, it would almost certainly not get the requisite two-thirds majority in the Senate. But I was struck by a comment on my 17 September article by a former senior US government official, whom I know personally and respect greatly, as follows:
“…public opinion will be a factor in the Senate's response to the potential discovery of impeachable offences. Though notoriously fickle, American public opinion about [Mr] Trump seems to be trending negative, even among ‘the base’. Keep an eye on that dynamic, Congress will certainly be watching it.”
Meanwhile, we cannot assume that Mr Mueller will take more steps between now and the midterms which damage Mr Trump’s approval ratings (indeed, we cannot even assume he will be allowed to continue his investigation even though, as FiveThirtyEight has argued, with public opinion seemingly swinging Mr Mueller’s way, firing him could do at least as much damage to the President in the eyes of the public). But I would personally be very surprised if we were not to see more telling developments in the next seven weeks.
[Addendum — 22 September: Claims first published by The New York Times that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr Mueller, discussed using the 25th amendment to oust Mr Trump (whether accurate or not) almost certainly increase the probability of the Special Counsel being fired — assuming, that is, that the President first elects to fire Mr Rosenstein. David Graham's assessment in the 21 September edition of The Atlantic is worth reading.]
As for the probability of a successful impeachment, still low, in my view if, perhaps, a little higher than I expected even six months ago. But this comes with the major caveat, as I argued in my 17 September article, ie that we still have no clear idea what Mr Mueller may be on to and will not have until he is ready to reveal all.
Image credit: FiveThirtyEight