What Tonight’s Elections Can Tell Us About Trump

There’s plenty of good news for the Democrats in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. The survey is somewhat unique in that it focuses exclusively on “the counties that were most responsible” for Donald Trump’s election. In their formulation, these are counties where support for the Republican nominee spiked, either growing much more robust than it had been for Romney and McCain, or actually flipping from Obama to Trump. They don’t focus on blue counties where turnout may have lagged or support may have been lower than in the recent past.

In these so-called “Trump counties,” support for the president is trending downward and into negative territory.

In the new survey, disapproval of the president’s job performance outweighed approval by 2 percentage points, a weaker showing than in July, when approval outweighed disapproval by 4 points. Mr. Trump’s job approval among adults nationally is at 38%, according to a Journal/NBC poll last month.

You can look at the results on an issue by issue basis, too, and you’ll find Trump has some areas of relative strength, especially on his handling of the economy. But less than a third of respondents (thirty-two percent) think the country is better off than when Trump took office. Two-thirds of Republicans in these counties are worried “that America is being divided by hate and intolerance.”

In general, these people seem unimpressed with Trump’s presidency so far, with 53 percent saying that he has no clear agenda.

Yet, there’s bad news for Democrats, too.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who conducted the survey with Republican Bill McInturff, said that the erosion of approval for Mr. Trump was most notable in the counties that most strongly favored Mr. Trump in 2016: In counties where he surged at least 20 points higher than Mr. Romney, 49% now approve of his performance, down from 56% in July.

“The cohesion and solidity of this base is receding, not expanding, and harbors greater uncertainty about his performance as president,” Mr. Yang said.

Mr. McInturff said, however, that he saw no sign of “buyer’s remorse” among Mr. Trump voters.

“A year later, I don’t see significant evidence these are voters who would reverse their decision,” Mr. McInturff said. “I don’t see much evidence that Democrats have made up ground in these counties.”

We’re going to learn something concrete tonight from the numbers we see out of Virginia and New Jersey. It won’t be easy to interpret the results since Trump isn’t on the ballots and neither are members of Congress. But if the Democrats do better than expected in Trump counties we’ll have evidence that his base is receding, and if the Democrats make no inroads or do even worse, we’ll have to conclude that whatever weaknesses may be developing, the left has not learned how to take advantage of them.

Weakness can take a variety of forms. People can be demoralized and unmotivated to turn out to vote. People can be angry and disappointed and intent on sending a message of disapproval. Or people can be unhappy, but basically as motivated as ever to vote against a political party that they increasingly consider alien and hostile.

We can also fall victim to overemphasizing Trump’s role in the results and not paying enough attention to the actual campaigns or the records of the outgoing incumbents. Chris Christie is an anchor around the neck of Kim Guadagno’s campaign for governor in New Jersey. Comparatively, Terry McAuliffe is fairly popular in Virginia. Ralph Northam has been heavily criticized in recent weeks, often accused of doing whatever he can to blow an an easily winnable race, while Ed Gillespie has been taken to the woodshed for turning his campaign into a new rallying cry for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Campaigns matter, and so do the candidates.

That’s why we’ll want to look not just at the bottom line results of who won and who lost, but also at how the vote is distributed. If Northam wins a turnout battle where the D.C. suburbs show up at a greater rate than the red parts of the Commonwealth, that will teach us one lesson. If Northam wins because he reduced the Democrats’ losses in red parts of the state, that will teach us a different lesson. And if he loses, we’ll want to see how exactly that happened, too. Was his base depressed, or did the Republicans just come out in droves?

When the results come in, there will be a temptation to have instant takes that fit preconceived narratives. If the Democrats win two gubernatorial races, do well in the Virginia legislature, and carry the day in some other important races around the country, that will be presented as bad news for Trump. But all of these things could happen without it really showing anything truly encouraging for the Democrats’ chances of beating Trump in 2020. After all, Clinton won both New Jersey and Virginia. What we want to see is if the Republicans are still as strong in the areas where Trump was strong last November.

So, a real analysis of tonight’s election results is going to take a little time to conduct and it will involve a close look at country level data.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.