Written by Nate Cohn
President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are under water in national polls. His position for reelection, on the other hand, might not be quite so bleak.
His advantage in the Electoral College, relative to the national popular vote, may be even larger than it was in 2016, according to an Upshot analysis of election results and polling data.
That persistent edge leaves him closer to reelection than one would think based on national polls, and it might blunt any electoral cost of actions like his recent tweets attacking four minority congresswomen.
For now, the mostly white working-class Rust Belt states, decisive in the 2016 election, remain at the center of the electoral map, based on our estimates. The Democrats have few obviously promising alternative paths to win without these battleground states. The president’s approval ratings remain higher in the Sun Belt battlegrounds than in the Rust Belt, despite Democratic hopes of a breakthrough.
The president’s views on immigration and trade play relatively well in the Northern battlegrounds, including among the pivotal Obama-Trump voters.
There are signs that some of these voters have soured on his presidency, based on recent polling. There is also reason to think that white working-class voters who supported Trump were relatively likely to stay home in last November’s midterm elections.
A strategy rooted in racial polarization could at once energize parts of the president’s base and rebuild support among wavering white working-class voters. Many of these voters backed Trump in the first place in part because of his views on hot-button issues, including on immigration and race.
Alone, the president’s relative advantage in the Electoral College does not necessarily make him a favorite to win. His approval rating is well beneath 50% in states worth more than 270 electoral votes, including in the northern battleground states that decided the 2016 election.
And just because racial polarization could work to the president’s advantage in general doesn’t mean that his particular tactics will prove effective. The president’s campaign rally Wednesday night seemed, for a time, to go too far even for him; on Thursday, he disavowed the “send her back” chants that supporters directed toward a congresswoman who immigrated to the United States as a refugee. (By Friday, he was declining to condemn the chants.)
But Trump’s approval rating has been stable even after seemingly big missteps. And if it improves by a modest amount — not unusual for incumbents with a strong economy — he could have a distinct chance to win reelection while losing the popular vote by more than he did in 2016, when he lost it by 2.1 percentage points.
The president’s relative advantage in the Electoral College could grow even further in a high-turnout election, which could pad Democratic margins nationwide while doing little to help them in the Northern battleground states.
It is even possible that Trump could win while losing the national vote by as much as 5 percentage points.
The state of the Electoral College, 2018
The best available evidence on the president’s standing by state comes from the large 2018 election surveys. Their quality is generally high, and unlike most surveys, they have been adjusted to match actual election results, ironing out many potential biases of preelection polls. Although these surveys are nearly 9 months old, the stability of the president’s overall approval ratings means, for our purposes, that they remain a decent measure of the distribution of his support.
Taken together, the president’s approval rating among midterm voters stood at about 45.5%, excluding the voters who did not express an opinion (for comparability, measures of the president’s approval will exclude voters without an opinion).
By state, the president’s approval rating was beneath 50% in states worth 310 electoral votes: the states carried by Hillary Clinton, along with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona and North Carolina. This is not exactly good news for the president, but not as bad as it typically would be given an approval rating of 45.5%. John McCain, for instance, lost states worth 365 electoral votes in 2008 while winning 45.7% of the vote.
The most important measure of the president’s strength in the Electoral College, relative to the national vote, is the difference between the national vote and the “tipping-point state” — the state most likely to push a candidate over the Electoral College threshold.
Wisconsin was the tipping-point state in 2016, and it seems to hold that distinction now, at least based on the president’s approval rating among 2018 midterm voters.
Overall, the president’s approval rating was 47.1% in Wisconsin, above his 45.5% nationwide. This implies that the president’s advantage in the Electoral College, at least by his approval rating, is fairly similar to what it was in 2016.
A closer look at the underlying evidence suggests there’s reason to think the president’s ratings could be higher than estimated in the state. The estimates are based on four measures of the president’s standing, and there is one outlier: the Votecast survey, which places the president’s net approval rating at minus 13, or 43.6% approval. The other three are in close agreement, placing the president’s rating between 47% and 48%.
There is an additional piece of evidence, unique to Wisconsin, that’s consistent with a stronger position for the president: the Marquette University poll, which gave Trump a minus 5 net approval among likely voters in its final poll before the midterms. Over the longer run, the president has averaged a minus 5 net approval among registered voters (not midterm voters) in Marquette polls since October.
In other words, most measures suggest that the president’s rating is higher than 47.1% in Wisconsin. If you excluded the Votecast data and added the final Marquette poll, the president’s approval rating would rise to 47.6% — or a net 4.2 points higher than his nationwide approval.
It is important to emphasize that it is impossible to nail down the president’s standing in Wisconsin, or any state, with precision. But Wisconsin is the pivotal state in this analysis, and a 1-point difference there could potentially be decisive.
One reason that such a small swing in Wisconsin could be so important is that the Democrats do not have an obviously promising alternative if Wisconsin drifts to the right.
In 2016, Florida was that obviously promising alternative: It voted for Trump by 1.2 percentage points, compared with his 0.8-point victory in Wisconsin.
But all of the measures indicate that Florida has shifted to the right of the nation since 2016, at least among 2018 midterm voters. The president’s approval rating in Florida was essentially even, and by our measure, slightly positive. Republicans narrowly won the Florida fights for Senate and governor, and also the statewide U.S. House vote.
The next tier of Democratic opportunities doesn’t provide an easy backstop to Democratic weakness in Wisconsin either. There’s Arizona, where Democrats had a good midterm cycle, but where the president’s approval rating is plainly stronger than it is nationwide or in Wisconsin. The same is true of Iowa or North Carolina, though the president’s standing in those states is somewhat more uncertain in the absence of an exit poll or a high-profile statewide result.
In the end, these states, particularly Arizona, could prove to be a better opportunity for Democrats than Wisconsin. But at least based on this evidence, it would probably be more a reflection of Democratic weakness in Wisconsin than strength elsewhere.
Milwaukee and Miami-Dade
In both Wisconsin and Florida, the president’s resilience seems grounded in two regions: the Milwaukee area and Miami-Dade County.
The president’s average approval rating in the Milwaukee media market stands at 48% — virtually unchanged from what it was in 2016, in a compilation of Marquette University polls since October. His approval has declined in the rest of the state, according to both the Marquette data and the exit polls, which also showed the president holding firm in the Milwaukee area. A similar pattern has showed up in statewide election results, where Republicans have tended to run strongly in the area.
The president’s approval rating in Miami-Dade may even be better than his standing there in 2016, based on three Times/Siena surveys of two districts there, Florida’s 26th and 27th. These polls were also highly accurate, coming within a point of the election results. On average, the president’s approval rating stood at 45.7% among the likely electorate in the two districts — well above his 40.8% share of the major-party vote there in the 2016 presidential election.
At first glance, these regions might seem to have little in common. But in terms of politics, their idiosyncrasies have played out in similar ways.
Both are regions where the Republicans do better than demographics would lead you to expect. Milwaukee is one of the last Northern metropolitan areas where Republicans still rule the suburbs; Miami-Dade is one of the few places where Republicans win Hispanics, in this case Cuban voters.
Both areas were, or still are, represented by major establishment figures in Republican politics: Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Many fought hard against Trump in the primary. These areas were some of Trump’s weakest of the primary season — he won 22% in the primaries in Miami-Dade and in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Clinton improved over Barack Obama in both areas in 2016. The president’s apparent resilience or recovery in these regions contrasts with what has happened elsewhere in the country. But it is possible that the real anomaly was his weakness in 2016, which was perhaps in part because of the president’s hostility to his prominent skeptics in these areas. The Republican establishment is now unified, if belatedly, behind the president; perhaps these voters have unified behind him as well.
The consequences of higher turnout
Many assume that the huge turnout expected in 2020 will benefit Democrats, but it’s not so straightforward. It could conceivably work to the advantage of either party, and either way, higher turnout could widen the gap between the Electoral College and the popular vote.
That’s because the major Democratic opportunity — to mobilize nonwhite and young voters on the periphery of politics — would disproportionately help Democrats in diverse, often noncompetitive states.
The major Republican opportunity — to mobilize less educated white voters, particularly those who voted in 2016 but sat out 2018 — would disproportionately help them in white, working-class areas overrepresented in the Northern battleground states.
If everyone who was eligible to vote turned up at the polls, the gap between the Sun Belt and Rust Belt would close. Texas, astonishingly, would emerge as the tipping-point state. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, by contrast, would barely budge.
Of course, a full-turnout election is not going to happen. In recent months, analysts have speculated about a 70% turnout among eligible voters, up from 60% in 2016.
In this kind of high-turnout presidential election, by our estimates, the tipping-point state would drift to the right as people who voted in 2016 but not in 2018 return to the electorate and nudge states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin toward the president. At the same time, the Sun Belt would drift left. Arizona could overtake Wisconsin as the tipping-point state. But even in this hypothetical high-turnout election, the president’s approval rating in Arizona would be higher than it was in 2018 in Wisconsin. It becomes harder for the Democrats to win the presidency.
In such an election, the tipping-point state could have a net approval rating that is 5 points higher than the president’s national net approval rating, potentially allowing the president to win reelection while losing the popular vote by a wide margin.
2018 isn’t destiny
This analysis mainly covers the opportunities available to both parties; we can’t know which side will take better advantage of them. And it’s important to emphasize that the kind of slight difference in measuring Wisconsin is beyond our ability to discern with great confidence, even using high-quality, calibrated data.
All of this is based on the president’s approval rating — well ahead of the election. Most presidents manage to improve their approval rating between this point and the election, particularly with a strong economy. But unforeseen events could also hurt his approval rating; it is even imaginable that the president could go too far on immigration for some of his more moderate supporters.
If the president’s ratings improve, the crucial question will be where. The answer is likely to be influenced by the contrast he can draw with his still-undetermined opponent.
Democrats could nominate a candidate who tries to win the presidency by mobilizing a new, diverse coalition with relative strength in Sun Belt states, while making little or no effort to secure the support of the white working-class voters with reservations about the president.
The Democrats could certainly win in the Sun Belt states, even in Texas. Perhaps this kind of Democrat could generate such a favorable turnout that it helps the party even in relatively white states.
But it’s also a strategy that would tend to increase the risk of a wide gap between the Electoral College and the national vote. It’s also hard to see how it would be the easier way forward for Democrats, at least as long as the president’s approval rating in the Rust Belt remains so much lower than in the Sun Belt states.
Of course, the campaign season has barely begun. The election could wind up being a simple referendum on the president, and his approval ratings suggest he could lose, perhaps even decisively. But his relative advantage in the Electoral College could ensure his political survival.
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