On Nov. 4, 2008, American voters faced the happy task of choosing between two popular presidential nominees, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, both of whom, according to the last pre-election Gallup Poll, about 3 in 5 Americans regarded positively. In stark contrast, the 2016 Election Day exit poll of voters revealed an electorate forced to pick between, as one Democratic wiseguy put it, "the evil of two lessers." Voters in 2016 gave Democrat Hillary Clinton a 55 percent unfavorable rating and just a 43 percent favorable rating, but even more negatively regarded was Republican Donald Trump, who received just a 38 percent favorable rating and a 60 percent unfavorable rating.
It is fair to say that in the 2016 election, if Trump had been running unopposed on the presidential ballot, he would have lost. The only reason he won is that he was running against Clinton. Nearly 1 in 5 voters in 2016 admitted they held unfavorable feelings toward both Trump and Clinton. So Trump won the White House by carrying 60 percent of those voters who did not like him personally but who apparently liked Clinton even less.
But now it's 2018, and because midterm elections are invariably a referendum on voters' approval or disapproval — professionally and personally — of the current president, Republicans are increasingly unconfident about this November. Why? In the post-World War II era, whenever a president's job rating is below 50 percent approval, that president's party loses an average of 43 House seats in the midterm election. Trump's most recent Gallup result is just 39 percent approval. Thanks to Republican pollster Lance Tarrance, we know that none of the past five presidents — from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama — saw an improvement is his job approval rating in the year before his first midterm.
To put it less elegantly, since the upset win of Democrat Conor Lamb in a solidly Republican House district in southwestern Pennsylvania — even in spite of Republican and conservative groups outspending Democrats by a 5-1 ratio — there have been reports of an outbreak of bed-wetting in the increasingly anxious House GOP caucus.
But Clinton could be coming to the Republicans' rescue. Clinton, whose most recent favorable rating in the Gallup Poll was 36 percent — her lowest ever — cannot stop discussing her 2016 defeat. In an appearance in India to promote her latest memoirs, Clinton explained: "I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward," and white married women supported Trump because of "ongoing pressure to vote the way that (their) husband, (their) boss, (their) son, whoever, believes (they) should." Clinton blames her defeat on the voters who fell for Trump's "looking backwards" campaign.
Clinton effectively has thrown a life preserver to Republicans scared of the voters' expected harsh November judgment on their party's control of Washington by giving her political opponents the unearned option of making Hillary Clinton — and her apparent contempt for the voters — instead of Donald Trump's flawed character and flawed record the main issue of 2018. In American politics, losers blame the voters.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.