How Trump's endorsement lost its shine
What does the president's inability to get others elected mean for his own popularity?
President Trump is turning out to be a lousy politician.
He couldn't help Roy Moore win a Senate seat in Alabama in 2017. He couldn't help Republicans keep control of the House of Representatives in 2018. He couldn't help Matt Bevin keep the governorship of Kentucky earlier this month. And over the weekend, he failed to help Eddie Rispone win the governorship of Louisiana — despite abject begging to the people of Louisiana "to give me a big win, please."
They didn't. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards defeated Rispone Saturday by about 40,000 votes.
We're used to treating Trump like a political unicorn, a creature for whom the normal laws of political gravity — and decency — do not apply. He won the presidency despite insulting women, Gold Star parents, and a reporter with disability. But his repeated inability to secure victory for fellow Republicans in local races suggests it's time to recognize his own victory for what it was: a fluke.
Women are fleeing the Republican Party. Suburbanites are leaving, too — and Democratic-leaning suburbs are increasingly powerful even in GOP-leaning states. Republican members of Congress are retiring at prodigious rates, making it unlikely the party can retake the House of Representatives next year.
That's a steep hill for any candidate or party to climb. Throw in the fact that Trump is deeply unpopular — and has been since the outset of his presidency — and the picture is grim for the president indeed.
But that doesn't mean he won't win in 2020. The presidential system is stacked against Democrats, after all, which is the only reason Trump is president right now. (And it might be the only reason we have had any Republican presidents in this century.) A recent study suggests that Republicans can be expected to win the presidency through the Electoral College in two-thirds of the races in which they lose the popular vote. So Democrats shouldn't get too cocky about the possibilities of beating him, like they did in 2016. Neither, however, should they fear him unduly.
Put Trump — or a proxy — against a Democrat in a head-to-head, winner-take-all contest of who gets the most votes from actual voters, and there is a pretty good chance the Republican will lose. We now have three years of data suggesting that the president finds it difficult to win in elections where the odds aren't already massively stacked in favor of the GOP. And even in redder states, there is evidence that Trumpism has reached its sell-by date. Alabama, Kentucky, and Louisiana aren't exactly homes to bleeding heart liberalism, after all. In the Republicans stronghold of Kansas, Kris Kobach — who might be the Trumpiest Republican outside of Trump himself — lost the gubernatorial race in a Democratic landslide in 2018.
The president's response to his mounting unpopularity and failed politicking is to deny and lie. Earlier this year, he fired campaign pollsters who let unflattering numbers leak. And in the case of the Bevin and Rispone election losses, Trump has claimed that his campaigning for those candidates helped them close the gap in the last days before the vote.
"The president just about dragged Gov. Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected in what turned into a very close race at the end," Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, said after the Kentucky loss. That probably isn't true. And even if it were, the result isn't that much more flattering to the president. A political ally who consistently helps you fall short of closing the deal isn't much better than an ally who causes you to lose by 20 points.
The most recent losses by Trumpist candidates come, incidentally, as Democrats debate the legacy of former President Barack Obama. One lingering criticism of Obama — besides policy failures — that the Democratic Party suffered grievously during his tenure, losing seats in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation.
Republicans haven't suffered the same scale of losses under Trump — but then again, he hasn't had two full terms. But it is now clear that neither man had much in the way of coattails on which to get acolytes elected. Obama, however, managed to win a majority of the popular vote for himself, twice — an accomplishment that Trump has not yet fulfilled, and seems unlikely to attain next year.
Trump could still win re-election, thanks to the aforementioned quirks of the Electoral College. Until then, though, his losses are starting to pile up. He isn't a political unicorn, after all. He's just a guy who got lucky once.
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