With the midterms now just a fortnight away, Donald Trump is indulging to the full in one of his favourite pastimes, ie campaign rallies, thereby underlining the widely held view among the commentariat — and Mr Trump’s own acknowledgement — that the upcoming elections are effectively (and typically) a referendum on the President himself.
Admitting that I am, in any case, a fan of the Financial Times’s ‘Swamp Notes’ (subscriber access only), I therefore read yesterday’s column by Rana Foroohar — headed “Trump’s midterm mistake” with particular interest. It begins as follows:
“For years now, we’ve been told that elections are ‘about the economy, stupid’. President Donald Trump seems to believe that, as he’s been trying to make the midterm elections all about himself, his tax cut, and how his administration has supposedly unleashed animal spirits and increased prosperity. The question is whether voters are actually buying it.”
In answering her own question. Ms Foroohar cites polling evidence (admittedly from an openly Democratic pollster, Stan Greenberg) which suggests that even among white working class males, who make up a large proportion of Mr Trump’s base, less than 50% believe that they and their family are better off and financially more secure.
This should come as no surprise. As I have been pointing out in articles (see, eg, here) and client meetings for around 18 months now, Mr Trump’s seeming obsession with the stock market as an indicator of his success is, to put it politely, curious. This is not just because of the seemingly increasing risk of a significant and sustained correction (an eventuality for which Mr Trump seems to be preparing to judge from what I see as his recent ‘preemptive strike’ against the Federal Reserve). More significantly when it comes to firing up his base, it suggests that Mr Trump is oblivious to the fact that under 50% of Americans benefit from higher stock valuations, with the proportion among his core support certainly much lower still. Couple this with the fact that real wages for the ‘average’ American have barely budged, and Ms Foroohar is almost certainly correct to conclude as follows:
“What’s happening? I think it’s the end of trickle down as a mythology. While past presidents could gain points by touting higher stock markets and job figures, [Mr] Greenberg notes that since 2008, there’s been a growing awareness amongst the voting public that the economy can be getting ‘better’ and still not be better for them. The two Americas narrative has finally taken root in the mass public consciousness.”
It is far from clear, however, that Republican legislators ‘get’ this . Right from the start of the year, all the signs have been that what we used to call the GOP ‘mainstream’ on the Hill wanted, and still wants, the principal campaign focus to be the economy — which, to be fair, is not, on the face of it, unreasonable given its historic importance and current overall performance.
However, whatever Mr Trump may be saying about the economy at his rallies, I think the headliner writers at the FT (who have a longstanding propensity for hyperbole, in my view) sell Ms Foroohar short — and in a way which she herself at least implies when she goes on as follows:
“…polling shows that white male voters in the Rust Belt aren’t buying the Trump economic success story nearly as much as evangelicals, who are predisposed to protect this presidency no matter what. [Mr] Greenberg says he’s seeing approval ratings of 36-38 per cent in places like Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The big question is whether the Christian right, which has been further galvanised by the appointment of pro-lifer Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court, will offset weaker support in the industrial Midwest.”
This is, to my mind, the first part of the big question — the second, and even more important, part being whether Mr Trump can fire up his base to the point where the Republicans manage to retain control of both Houses.
Here, I think Ms Foroohar herself may be guilty of selling Mr Trump — who is, in my view, pretty canny about these things — short by only making reference to Mr Kavanagh. In the past 48 hours we have seen a fresh — and, no doubt, deliberately timed — move by Mr Trump to pander to his base, ie the leaked story in The New York Times last weekend about Administration proposals to legislate transgender out of existence. As Masha Gessen reflected in The New Yorker yesterday:
“It stands to reason that news of potential sweeping changes to civil-rights law would emerge on the eve of the midterm elections.”
Indeed, I would be even more explicit and agree with those who are saying that Mr Trump is also setting a deliberate trap for Democrats, hoping to draw them into focusing on ‘identity’ thereby further inflaming the culture war and further firing up his base. Furthermore, we can see a similar pattern in Mr Trump's questionable claims about the migrant caravan heading though Mexico towards the US border.
Then there is Iran. In an article published by Arab Digest (subscriber access only) yesterday about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, I wrote as follows:
“It is, in my view, very likely that 5 November was the date chosen for a fresh, oil-focused wave of US sanctions against Iran specifically with the 6 November midterms in mind, ie to bolster enthusiasm among Republican supporters to get out and vote in the face of what many commentators see as a potential ‘blue wave’. In addition to a concrete manifestation of delivering on a pre-election pledge, punishing Iran is, after all, popular with much of Mr Trump’s ‘core’ support among the overwhelmingly pro-Israel white evangelicals. However, the downside risk inherent in such an approach lies in the fact that the price of gasoline at the pump is electorally highly sensitive in the US. In consequence, a key element in Mr Trump’s Iran strategy is having Saudi Arabia pump more oil to make up for the reduction in Iranian output on the world market.... With Brent crude already just shy of USD80pb — an increase of around USD10pb since mid-August (albeit USD6.50pb or so lower than a four-year high hit earlier this month) for which he has partly himself to blame — the last thing Mr Trump needs is a Saudi-induced oil spike in retaliation for US sanctions between now and 6 November. And keep in mind that even a credible threat of sanctions could be enough to trigger a market reaction.
Mr Trump’s first objective will therefore be to get through the next fortnight or so without anything happening which could trigger a sharp uptick in the oil price, while following through on his Iran agenda.”
[Note: Possibly a coincidence, but the fact that Brent has now fallen below USD79pb suggests that he may be having some success, at least so far; but much may hinge on reaction and possible follow-up what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in the statement about the murder he made earlier today.]
All, this being said, as things stand, polls now point persuasively to the Republicans retaining control of the Senate (and perhaps even increasing their majority). However, as David Leonhardt reflected in The New York Times yesterday, the probability of the Democrats winning control of the House lies somewhere between 71% and 85% depending whose analysis one is reading. AND (looking at this from a Republican perspective — eg and notably the probability of a Trump victory in 2016!):
“Events with odds like these — somewhere between 15 percent and 30 percent — happen all the time”.
In short, although Mr Trump will no doubt continue to claim full credit for the performance of the US economy, I expect his main electoral messages to continue to be based strongly on themes which resonate with his predominantly white evangelical core support and which may yet see Republicans turn out in sufficient numbers to stem a possible ‘blue wave’.
Thus (and acknowledging that my base case remains that the Democrats will probably secure a majority in the House but fall short in the Senate), it would be unwise to rule out the possibility that Mr Trump will again defy the pollsters and pundits and pull off an electoral surprise. For which he would, no doubt, be quick to claim all the credit too...with, it must be said, some justification.
[24 October footnote: This article which I found on the BBC News website today makes interesting reading: it isn't a huge shift we are talking about, assuming the forthcoming Pew poll is accurate, but it may mark the beginning of a significant trend and it certainly underlines, in my view, the need for Mr Trump to continue to come up with 'stuff' which resonates with the evangelicals.]