White House & President

The paradox of Trump and midterms

In this month’s Harvard Caps/Harris poll are two rather remarkable figures on President TrumpDonald John TrumpSoros rep: Fox News refuses to have me on Rihanna vows that her songs will never again play at Trump’s ‘tragic rallies’ Midterm vote to set cyber agenda MORE. On the one hand, 57 percent approve of the job that he is doing on the economy, even before the upbeat numbers on Friday, yet when asked if they personally like Trump, only 27 percent said “yes” in a remarkable divergence between policy and personality that will play itself out in the final midterm vote tallies.

When working for President Clinton, we developed the theory of a Saturday night Clinton and an Oval Office Clinton: It was the Saturday night side of him that caused all the trouble. Today there is obviously an economic Trump, more knowledgeable than any recent president about what makes the economy tick, and the Twitter Trump, who throws verbal bombs that explode daily in the public square, dragging down his image.

Objectively, the economic Trump has racked up surprising results in a short time: over 5 million jobs after a long expansion that started under President Barack Obama but had stalled. Wages are rising and millions reentered the workforce, and an expanded base of workers has a multiplier effect of expanding the consumer and tax base of the country. Trump promised to bring back the coal industry and he did.

Trump even renegotiated NAFTA, and most observers laughed at the idea that he could use threats of tariffs as negotiating chits to get results for American workers who had been abandoned by previous presidents. Obama scoffed at bringing back manufacturing jobs in America as a fantasy, and yet, hundreds of thousands of such jobs have returned.

The president also developed and deployed a new kind of economic warfare. When the Turkish government refused to hand over a political prisoner, he imposed sanctions that wrecked the Turkish currency. It took only a few months for Turkey’s prime minister to rethink his relationship with the United States and cough up Pastor Andrew Brunson. The Chinese at first basically laughed at Trump’s demands to stop stealing our country’s intellectual property. Several hundred billions of tariffs later, and a nearly 30 percent decline in the value of Chinese assets, and China is ready to come to the table.

No recent president has understood the ways of the modern economy in this way, and used it to get diplomatic victories. Trump transformed the Republican Party from a business elite and free trade party to a working class and nationalist populist party, leaving the old party and much of its leadership in the dust. The policy wins, economic success and the Kavanaugh fight united the party around Trump.

In this month’s Harvard Caps/Harris Poll, voters say it is Trump, not Obama, who gets credit for the economic revival by a margin of 47 to 21. Even a 38 percent plurality of Democrats give the most credit to Trump for the economy — a stunning number for any Republican president, let alone for the bete noir  of the Democratic Party. When it comes to the economy at this point, even Democrats look to Trump as delivering on his promise.

But, oh, that Twitter Trump: 88 percent in a recent Harvard Caps/Harris poll said they wish he would tweet less. On virtually every presidential personal characteristic, Trump receives the worst ratings I have ever seen in more than 40 years of polling. Fifty-eight percent say the president is “vulgar,” and only 23 percent say he is a good role model for children; only 31 percent say he sets the right tone for the nation.

Only 27 percent see him as earning the respect of those people who did not vote for him — so these negative perceptions extend even to those people who support Trump and approve of the job he is doing as president. President Clinton always had personal ratings that trailed his job performance but it was 6 or 7 points lower, not anything like the difference between Trump’s job approval and his personal ratings.

But two positive personal qualities did emerge from the list in the president’s qualities: Being a disruptor of conventional Washington politics, 63 per cent agreed he is. And 55 percent credited him with being dogged in his determination to enact the policies he promised. These are two qualities that most recent presidents have failed in, but they generally got right the basics of carrying out the office with dignity.

So now we have the midterm voter going to the polls. On the minds of the voters are really four basic items — attitudes towards health care, towards immigration, the economy, and towards Trump personally. The Democrats have reversed their fortunes on ObamaCare and have a significant edge on the health care issue, thanks to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who never had an acceptable plan and then quit. Immigration is a divisive issue that both ignites the president’s base and also ignites the opposition at the same time, while reinforcing all his personal negatives. In swing areas he is likely winning that issue while losing it on the coasts. The economy is now a clear win, and concerns about the president personally are a clear loss. All told, that makes for a very confused mind of the midterm voter, which is why so many polls are so close.

Right now, conventional wisdom has us heading for a split decision in the midterms with Democrats winning the House and Republicans  expanding their margin in the Senate. This predicted outcome is in line with this map of the voting mind with wins and losses for both sides. However, if the Republicans win both houses, then it will be a victory for the president’s economic and immigration policies. If the Democrats win both, it will be a defeat for the president on his personal fitness for office and health care policies. It’s up to the voters now to send the politicians their message.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.

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