After the 2010 midterms, in which Democrats were crushed and lost control of the House, President Barack Obama held a news conference. He was subdued and called the wave election a “shellacking.”
One reason for that shellacking: millions of Democrats stayed home. As he walked out of the East Room, I asked the president why Democrats didn't come out to vote. “I don’t know,” he said, “but we’re gonna find out.”
Obama never did find out. Democrats also stayed home in the next midterm, in 2014, resulting not only in further Republican gains in the House, but also a GOP takeover of the Senate.
With another midterm upon us, the former president is barnstorming the country, endorsing Democratic candidates and trying to get out the vote. He's been to Illinois, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania. On Monday he's in Las Vegas, on Friday it's Milwaukee, and there's more to come. Until recently Obama was silent as President Donald Trump took a wrecking ball to signature achievements like the Affordable Care Act, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal. Now, deeply contemptuous of Trump not just as a president but as a human being, Obama is itching to humiliate his successor at the polls.
Trump drives Democrats, and women, to vote
But the question is this: If he couldn’t get out the midterm vote in 2010 and 2014, when he was president, why does anyone think he can do it now?
There are in fact several big differences. The party that’s not in the White House, at this point the Democrats, almost always makes gains. Obama's approval rating is in the 60s now, compared with the 40s back then. And this time around, Obama has an ally: Trump himself. Given the same opportunity all new presidents have — to rise above the partisan divide and bring Americans together — Trump has doubled down on his base, abdicated any semblance of decent or normal behavior and further alienated those who didn’t vote for him. This is the overriding reason why the unemployment rate is 3.7 percent and yet Trump remains deeply unpopular with most Americans.
Women, who comprise 52 percent of the electorate, are a case in point. Two years ago Trump got only 41 percent of them, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent. You’d think a politician who lost the biggest bloc of voters by a double-digit margin would try and make amends. Yet now 63 percent of women disapprove of Trump's job performance in a new Pew Research survey, compared with just 30 percent who approve.
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The reasons for this need little elaboration: His bragging about sexually assaulting women, his efforts to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, the way he insults and belittles women — calling Stormy Daniels “Horseface,” mocking Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. Trump had an opportunity to improve his image with women and he blew it.
The only thing that really matters is whether women will actually vote. In key states, according to CNN, “likely women voters say they'll vote for Democrats in much larger numbers than previous elections.” Turnout in primaries and runoffs in recent months suggests this will be the case. If it is, current forecasts of a Democratic House takeover will hold. The Senate is less certain.
There is reason to question the “intensity”— the energy and enthusiasm — of some women. About 70 percent of all millennials, for example, identify more with Democrats then Republicans, and most want to see a Congress run by the Democrats. But only 30 percent of the 18.4 million millennial women “definitely” plan to vote, says a separate survey by Refinery29 and CBS News. The fewer millennials who show up Nov. 6, the better it is for Trump and Co.
Hispanics could disappoint Democrats
There is also reason to doubt the intensity of another very big, traditionally Democratic constituency: Hispanics. Beginning from the day he announced his candidacy in 2015, Trump has showered them with insults, and much of the country was convulsed by searing images of children in cages along the Mexican border. But if you think Hispanics are galvanized, think again. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month showed deep opposition to Trump — yet “less interest in the upcoming midterms than the electorate as a whole.” As with millennials, the lower the Hispanic turnout, the better Republicans will do.
On the other hand, many Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland after last year’s Hurricane Maria, and they're citizens with the right to vote. They could be particularly influential in Florida, where one coalition is aiming to register 100,000 Puerto Ricans. Latest data show a surge in Hispanic registration, mostly in counties with the largest Puerto Rican populations.
Democrats who are optimistic, even giddy about the outcome of the midterms should remember what happened the last time they thought they had an election in the bag. They were surprised in 2016 by Trump’s win and nearly a decade ago by that shellacking. We’re about to find out if they have figured things out any better now.
Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @WestWingReport.
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