Closing Arguments in the 2018 Midterm Elections

We are at the point in the election cycle where it’s time to start talking about closing arguments. While Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot this time, he wants people to vote as if he is.

“I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me,” Trump boomed this month at a rally in Southaven, Miss. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

He said much the same in West Virginia, where he was promoting the state’s GOP Senate nominee: “A vote for Morrisey is a vote for me,” Trump said, in a line that Morrisey’s campaign repurposed in a new ad.

As Brian Stelter noted, the president has made his closing argument very clear.

Stelter teed up the question about how Democrats respond to all of that. Here’s the answer:

It feels like President Donald Trump is everywhere in the final stretch of the midterm election: At rallies, on social media, on TV shows.

Everywhere, it seems, except in Democratic campaign ads and political messaging, where dislike of the president is being downplayed in favor of a closing argument focused on health care, taxes and protecting entitlements.

A report by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising, found that Trump came up in just 10 percent of ads from Sept. 18 to Oct. 15 — and only 5.5 percent of them were negative. That’s by far the lowest proportion of attack ads against a sitting president since the 2002 midterms, when George W. Bush’s soaring popularity after 9/11 made him off-limits for Democrats.

The article goes on to suggest several reasons why Democrats have chosen to focus on the issues voters care most about rather than the president. They include the fact that most likely voters have heard enough about Trump and made up their minds about whether or not they want to buy into his closing argument. For those who are less engaged, the concern is that “the noise around the president might discourage those who may not be likely to vote from participating in politics rather than psyche them up to cast ballots.”

Demonstrating the power of the grassroots and the wisdom of young people, a member of the College Democrats at the University of Florida said this about their strategy:

“We’re reacting to Trump in a sense, but that’s more us helping the people he’s harming, not necessarily following every little thing he does or every corrupt thing that happens with him,” said John Etienne, 19, political director for the university’s College Democrats.

The effectiveness of this approach can be seen when we look at the one issue that has topped voters concerns throughout this election: healthcare. Democrats have been so successful in putting it front and center that many Republicans (including the president) have taken to lying about their position on protecting people with pre-existing conditions. Martha McSally, the Republican senate candidate in Arizona, recently admitted that she’s getting her ass kicked for her vote to repeal Obamacare.

What has been interesting to watch in all of this is how tone deaf the Republican leadership has been to all of this. Not only have they been complicit in Trump’s message of hate and fear, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gone on record that if Republicans maintain their majorities, they’ll take another shot at repealing Obamacare and want to go after Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to reduce the federal deficit—which is rising once again primarily due to the Republican tax giveaway to wealthy Americans.

With the midterm elections only a week away, those are the closing arguments from Democrats and Republicans. The reason these races are generating so much interest is that, if they are decisive, they could demonstrate which argument resonates with American voters. Next Tuesday, all the attention will turn away from what those who are running for office are saying to those who will make their voices heard at the ballot box. As Greg Dworkin wrote, a successful showing by Democrats will challenge the narrative about how “being an asshole is smart politics … I can’t wait.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.