Saturday, September 8, 2018

What Will Obama's Presence Mean for Democrats This Fall?

The decision by former president Barack Obama to involve himself in the 2018 midterms - and I assume his speech at the University of Illinois was not a one off - could have four potential consequences.

One, it could backfire by potentially turning off suburban voters who do not like Donald Trump and who are leaning toward voting Democrat in the fall. Two, it could prove to be a lightning rod for Trump's base which would lead to an increase in Republican turnout. Three, it will energize progressives who have historically had a hard time showing for midterms. Four, it will have no impact at all since most of the electorate who intends to vote has already made up its mind. Let's address each of these in order.
  1. If we look very closely at Obama's two election wins, it was clear that the further you got from the urban centers the weaker his numbers became. In most suburban areas of the country he was no better than 50 / 50 and in some, he was under water. So there is a very real possibility that Obama could turn off some of those voters in tossup districts that Republicans currently hold, and that might mean the difference between a narrow win or a narrow loss. Clearly, Obama will have to be very selective as to which districts and states he visits.
  2. Regarding Trump's base, I seriously doubt that it needs any incentive to show up. The very thought that these people need a lightning rod is comical. You can count on one hand the number of times this president has told the truth and one of them was when he said he could shoot someone of Fifth Avenue and he wouldn't lose any of his supporters. With or without Obama on the campaign trail, these people will be loaded for bear.
  3. We've seen this movie before. Progressives getting all worked up about this or that issue and then, when it comes time to vote, they sit at home contemplating their navels. We saw it in 2010 and 2014. If ever there was a group of people for which the word lethargy was intended this is it. I'm sure that was the main motivation behind Obama's decision to jump back into the political waters. He saw what happened in 2014 when he sat on the sidelines while his party ostensibly disowned him. The result was that Democrats lost the Senate that year. This time around, with so much at stake, Obama seems determined not to repeat history. Like Bill Clinton before him, he's prepared to put his popularity to good work.
  4. And lastly, there's always the possibility that in the end Obama stumping for Democrats - or Trump stumping for Republicans for that matter - won't have any impact at all. If you look closely at the RCP generic ballot, one thing jumps out at you: Democrats have been in the lead since Trump was sworn in. True that lead has gone up and down, from a high of 13 percent in December of last year to a low of 3.2 percent just this past June, but at no point have Republicans taken a lead. Not since the 2006 midterms have we seen such consistency in the generic polling. What this indicates is that voter's perception of the major parties might already be baked in to the equation. And there is data that supports this. If that is the case, then the next two months will simply be a side show for political pundits to pontificate about.
So what does my gut tell me? If there was one weakness about Obama's presidency, it was that he didn't have much in the way of coattails. In short, his personal popularity didn't do much for down ballot Democrats at the federal and state levels. The result was that during his two terms in office, his party suffered historic losses across the board. Fortunately, Trump appears to be no better in this regard. True, his supporters may love him, but that affection hasn't - to borrow a Republican term - trickled down to his fellow cohorts. Witness the difficulty Ted Cruz is having in his reelection bid in Texas. He currently has a one-point lead over his Democratic opponent Beto O'Rourke in a state Republicans typically win by double digits. Of course, Trump spending his entire campaign bashing his own party hasn't exactly helped his cause during these midterms. Voters tend to remember phrases like "Lyin' Ted Cruz" when it comes time for them to go to the polls. That's one of the the reasons why there is an enthusiasm gap between the two parties, and it explains the generic polling we've seen.

What I think will happen is that both Obama and Trump will stump in areas of the country that will likely do the least harm to their respective parties. That means Trump will spend most of his time in states like Montana, North Dakota and Missouri, where the population is mainly white, while Obama will visit states like Arizona and Nevada, where there is a large Hispanic population. He'll also campaign in districts that Hillary won, but which are currently controlled by Republicans. In the end, though, I don't think it'll move the needle much. The country is so polarized at this point, the term middle ground is almost extinct.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that of the four possible outcomes, number four seems the most plausible. I like Obama, but, just like the mysterious op-ed writer in the Times, nothing he said in his speech was all that revelatory. If we know anything about Trump, it's that he's the most transparent president we've ever had in our history. He's as obvious as a wooden nickel. If that isn't enough to defeat his agenda this fall and bring him down in 2020, then nothing this charismatic former president can say or do will have the slightest impact.

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