Weekend reading on midterms assessments
Trump's candidates are doing poorly, and Biden's polling numbers are down, so where does that put us?
Let’s start with this slightly eye-popping headline and photo combination:
Aaron Sanderford’s original Nebraska Examiner story breaking the allegations as of April 14, 2022 is slightly horrifying in its details:
Herbster, the CEO of Conklin Co. and now a frontrunner in the 2022 GOP primary race, sometimes went further, according to eight women who spoke with the Nebraska Examiner.
During an event in 2019, for example, Republican State Sen. Julie Slama confirmed that as she walked by Herbster, he reached up her skirt, without her consent, and touched her inappropriately. The incident happened in the middle of a crowded ballroom at the Douglas County Republican Party’s annual Elephant Remembers dinner.
At the time, Slama had been recently appointed to the District 1 legislative seat representing southeast Nebraska. Herbster owns a farm and a house in the district.
Another person attending the 2019 event saw Herbster reach up Slama’s skirt and had told the Examiner about it. That witness and two others said they saw Herbster grope another young woman on her buttocks at the same event.
When the Examiner asked Slama on Monday if the two incidents at the event had been described accurately, and whether Herbster had touched her under her skirt, Slama said: “Yes, confirmed,” but declined to discuss the incidents further.
Six women, including the woman Slama saw being groped at the Elephant Remembers dinner, told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster touched them inappropriately when they were saying hello or goodbye to him, or when they were posing for a photograph by his side.
The women said Herbster groped them on their buttocks, outside of their clothes, during political events or beauty pageants. Each woman said she was grabbed, not inadvertently grazed, by Herbster.
A seventh woman said Herbster once cornered her privately and kissed her forcibly.
All the incidents occurred between 2017 and this year, according to those involved. The women ranged in age from their late teens to mid-20s at the time of the incidents.
This doesn’t appear to be abnormal for Trump-backed candidates, like Herbster, when we zoom out a bit, however.
Citing Mehmet Oz, Sean Parnell, Morgan Ortagus, Brian Kemp and J.D. Vance as examples, Jason Lemon portrays an increasingly divided Republican Party in his Newsweek article on April 15th.
J.D. Vance, in particular, seems to be in particularly dismal straits. As Mariana Alfaro and Josh Dawsey noted in the Washington Post on April 16th, Vance’s recent endorsement by Trump is part of a pattern. Vance is noticeably more Trumpian in demeanor on Twitter, which is apparently the equivalent of a middle-school cafeteria in terms of being a status arena for the political world.
The statement Trump made in support of Vance is also peculiarly crafted specifically for that race. Quoting the Post:
A second person close to Trump said he dictated the statement about Vance himself because he wanted to explain to others he had thought through the race and heard their arguments. (emphasis added)
A fairly persuasive argument being circulated by Republican opponents to Vance states that even with Trump’s endorsement, Vance is still likely to lose. Quoting Allison, et al., in Politico, on April 14th:
With an eye toward influencing Trump’s inner circle, on Thursday morning, Remington Research, a polling firm connected to former state treasurer Josh Mandel’s campaign, began circulating to top Republicans a polling memo arguing that a Trump endorsement of Vance would fail to vault Vance into serious contention.
“JD Vance will still lose even with President Trump’s endorsement. JD Vance is widely known by Republican Primary voters for his Never-Trumper comments and his calling Trump supporters ‘racists,’” Titus Bond, the Remington Research Group president, wrote in the memo. “Since he is already known to Ohioans as a self-proclaimed ‘Never Trumper’ and voters will forcefully be reminded of that, Vance will still lose even with President Trump’s endorsement.”
According to the memo, even with a Trump endorsement, Vance would only be in fourth place with 15 percent.
A collection of more than three dozen county GOP chairs and state party central committee members — including some from the state’s most populous counties — also banded together to sign a letter urging Trump not to endorse Vance, noting that he “referred to your supporters as ‘racists’ and proudly voted for Evan McMullin in 2016.”
“While we were working hard in Ohio to support you and Make America Great Again,” they wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO, “JD Vance was actively working against your candidacy.” (emphasis added)
At the same time as Trump’s endorsements seem to be failing, Biden’s popularity numbers seem to be under severe downwards pressure from the economy.
As Gallup notes in its cross-tab data, Biden’s approval rating is down the most with independent and politically unaffiliated people, who are predominantly younger. Biden is popular with older Americans who are less likely to be independent or unaffiliated than younger voters.
As bad as those aggregate numbers are, as Jason Lemon (again) points out in Newsweek on April 16th, those numbers are actually both better than Trump’s numbers at this point in his presidency, and also lower than Trump’s current approval rating.
Meanwhile, Trump's current favorability is higher than that of Biden. FiveThirtyEight's average shows that, as of April 13, about 43.7 percent of Americans viewed the former president favorably. Meanwhile, an average of 52.3 percent have an unfavorable view of Trump.
Polls also show that Trump would be well-positioned for a rematch against Biden if the next presidential election were held now. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls show that about 45.4 percent of voters say they would back Trump in 2024 while just 41.7 percent say they'd support Biden—a lead of 3.7 percent for the former president. (emphasis added)
This all puts the midterms into a rather strange frame, stepping back for a moment from it all.
As Geoffrey Skelly and Nathaniel Rakich point out, in an extremely well-elaborated summary in FiveThirtyEight on January 3, 2022, there are any number of statistical and social reasons for why the “midterm incumbent penalty” happens and the President’s party historically loses seats in a midterm. And, indeed, there are outside risks that the Democratic Party doesn’t lose both houses of the legislature, in particular the Senate, which is comparatively less sensitive to the national political environment than the House.
Most of the standard assumptions around a “midterm incumbent penalty” don’t assume for as radically polarized and atypical environment an environment like we have right now, however.
I think we’d have to go pretty far back in history to find a former President like Trump actively working against democratic institutions and the legitimacy of the electoral process; and I think where we are with social media is completely unique.
As Jonathan Haidt argued five days ago, on April 11, 2022, in a widely-circulating think-piece in The Atlantic, “the last 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid”, and a lot of that has to do with social media and the polarizing effect of partisan media.
It remains to be seen whether that favors some new form of American pragmatism or counterfactual, Trumpist revanchism more.