It’s the norm that on Labor Day the year before a Presidential election a political party is nervous. What’s unusual today is that both Republicans and Democrats are edgy.
For Republicans, Trump’s even more than usual bizarre behavior is heightening private concerns about his instability; his anger is palpable as he lashes out at friend and foe alike as his poll numbers slip. With a dozen House Republicans already announcing their retirements, and more expected in ensuing weeks, the party has almost given up on taking back control of that body.
Yet Democrats are unsettled by their presidential contest, sometimes resembling a free-for-all circus. A continuing lurch to the left will make it much harder to win back a majority in the Senate next year.
There’s a consensus among most Democrats, and a number of Republicans, that Democrats could blow it … but Trump, by himself, can’t win. He is markedly unpopular with very high negatives.
Barack Obama had similarly bad numbers at a comparable stage eight years ago, but there are big differences: The economy then was on the uptick, while it now appears to be heading south.
And, unlike his predecessor, Trump isn’t trying to expand his base, which remains intensely loyal.
Trump’s upset 2016 victory — he lost the popular vote — was possible only because he won what Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) has called the «Trump triers.» These were voters, maybe 7 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, who — while not solid Trumpites — were turned off by Hillary Clinton and wanted to shake up Washington and drain the swamp of special interests and influence peddlers. But that swamp has only gotten muckier under Trump, and the triers may be disillusioned.
Some of the President’s antics have drawn the ire even of hard-core backers like former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who was critical of Trump wanting to hold next year’s G-7 session at the Miami hotel he owns. Trump and his family have never met a conflict that doesn’t interest them if there’s money.
Most serious is the possibility that the booming economy, which Trump inherited, will slow over the next year, with a recession possible. Trump’s already shaky standing likely will decline further. In the August Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the President’s 43 percent job approval was boosted by a plurality giving him positive marks on the economy.
Still, Trump has assets.
He is going to avoid any serious primary — the current challengers are former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, an aging moderate/libertarian, and ex-Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who was a mini-Trump when he was in the House. This affords the incumbent the political and fund-raising luxury of focusing solely on the general election.
But Trump’s biggest asset may be the Democrats.
In the Journal/NBC News survey all the major presidential candidates had negative approval ratings, though not as bad as Trump.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has had a rocky road since his April announcement.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has run the most impressive campaign and is one of only several candidates with a realistic chance of winning the nomination.
But if the party persists in a lurch to the left — advocating measures like a single-payer health care system and what Republicans will charge is an open borders policy, even abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — it will scare some Democrats and Independents away. That would imperil Democratic Senate candidates in key battlegrounds like Iowa, Arizona and North Carolina.
There also are special cases that could have broader implication. Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the four left-wing members of the so-called “Squad,” is embroiled in personal disputes including over her immigration from Somalia; that will almost certainly be seized upon by Trump, who outrageously said these four women of color — all citizens, three native-born — should go back where they came from.
In Arizona Joe Arpaio, the immigration-bashing criminal convict (Trump pardoned him), says he’s going seek his former Sheriff office in Phoenix. If he gets the Republican nod, Democrats save a lot of get-out-the-vote money in Arizona: Arpaio’s a magnet for Latino turnout for Democrats.
Most top Democratic strategists contend the national problems will shake out, and either Biden or another mainstream Democrat — or a more tempered Warren — can win an election that will be about the extraordinary incumbent. They note encouraging polls not only in the industrial states Trump captured last time, but in places like Arizona and North Carolina, with some good numbers even in Texas.
There are four elections to watch in the next several months in Republican strongholds: a special North Carolina house race, and three gubernatorial races in Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana. If Democrats win the House race and two of the three governor contests, Trump anger and Republican angst will soar.
Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.