It’s not unprecedented for a president fairly popular with his own base to discover that voters’ loyalty and enthusiasm for him does not transfer to other members of his party.
President Barack Obama was unable to bring out his base in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, with crippling consequences for his presidency and the Democratic Party as a whole. But Donald Trump may soon discover the same problem to a much higher degree. After all, Obama did not run on the premise that his Democratic Party rivals were a bunch of low energy, lying weaklings. He didn’t run against the Democratic establishment and its congressional leadership.
Trump surprised people when he was rewarded for brutally attacking the Bush family, disparaging John McCain’s military service, calling Mitt Romney a choke-artist, and trashing other popular Republicans like Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. He called Washington a swamp and properly cast the Republican establishment as his enemy. It’s just not clear why a Trump supporter would be a natural voter for an incumbent member of Congress from any party.
Once in office, Trump has not shied away from criticizing congressional Republicans, especially when they failed to repeal Obamacare. His base must know on some level that he needs Republican majorities to protect himself, but a large percentage of his voters were never partisan Republicans or traditionally supportive of Republican majorities. Why would these people be motivated to show up and vote for Ted Cruz?
There’s obviously a reshuffling of the electorate going on, as we saw in last night’s election results. Several Republicans in Congress are no longer looking safe despite representing districts that have had a strong historic right-wing lean. This isn’t new. We’ve seen the Republicans underperform consistently in special elections for more than a year now.
Some of this is the natural pendulum swing we usually see in a new president’s first midterm, as the opposition gets motivated to counterattack. Some of it is a result of the GOP nominating some truly awful people like Judge Roy Moore. Some of it is buyer’s regret from Trump supporters who thought they’d be getting something different.
But I think a significant part of the problem is that a big chunk of Trump’s voters hate Congress, are not partisan Republicans, and don’t support incumbents or either party. I’ve written about this before, and I’m still uncertain about the size of the contingent, but there’s a significant number of people who always cast their ballot as an effort to vote the bums out. In the match-up of Clinton vs. Trump, that translated to a vote for Trump. In a congressional race, it means that the challenger is likely to get their support (assuming they bother to show up at all).
It’s not easy to turn a successful anti-establishment campaign into a movement for reelection. This is especially true if your movement’s hero is not actually on the ballot and he’s asking people to vote for the establishment.
In a way, Trump has been campaigning against the Republican majorities in Congress from the very beginning. This isn’t because they’re Republicans. It’s because the whole premise of his campaign was that Washington, D.C., is filled with bums.
I think it’s a failed premise to think that Trump supporters will save the GOP from midterm disaster. On the evidence so far, that’s not going to happen.