One of the Democrats’ first political ads of the 2018 campaign attacks “Paul Ryan and the Washington Republicans.” It opens with footage of the House speaker walking with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
But it never mentions President Donald Trump by name. It doesn’t use Trump’s image, either.
Democratic strategists tell Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report, that this omission is not an accident. She paraphrases the view of one of them: “Attacking the Republican leadership is more effective and credible with swing voters than trying to tie random Republicans to the unconventional and undefinable Trump.”
It’s a clever strategy - but it’s probably too clever to work.
Democrats are attracted to the strategy because Ryan and McConnell are even less popular than Trump is. The September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had Trump “upside down” by 9 points: 43 percent approved his performance and 52 percent disapproved. Ryan was at -16 percent net approval, McConnell at -30. A lot of Republicans who approve of Trump are giving the congressional leadership a thumbs-down.
Democrats would be delighted if congressional Republicans found themselves under attack next fall from both President Trump and them. But I suspect that in the end Democratic campaigns are going to make Trump their villain more than Ryan or McConnell.
Midterm campaigns usually go badly for the party that holds the White House because its voters are complacent while the other side’s are fired up. What’s firing up Democratic voters right now? They heartily dislike Ryan and McConnell, sure. But they have white-hot rage for Trump. Enabling Trump is one of the main offenses they hold against the congressional leaders.
Heavy consumers of political news might forget it, but Trump is also much better known than either Ryan or McConnell. That NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also showed that 36 percent of people have no clear opinion of Ryan, and 48 percent have no clear opinion of McConnell. The comparable figure for Trump is 12.
For a lot of voters, then, a Democratic campaign that uses Ryan as a foil would have to execute two steps: First get them to dislike Ryan, then get them to dislike Republican congressman X because of Ryan. If Trump is the foil, on the other hand, step one can be skipped for a lot more voters.
Democrats face another obstacle in trying to take advantage of the fact that a significant number of voters like Trump but not Ryan. Most of those voters don’t like Ryan because they think he isn’t doing enough to support Trump.
That sentiment won’t lead them to vote for a Democratic candidate for the House. From that candidate’s perspective, the best achievable outcome of an anti-Ryan ad campaign is getting some of these people to stay home. A larger proportion of anti-Trump voters might actually vote for Democratic candidates.
That’s why next fall, if you live in a competitive congressional district, you are likely to see the president’s face in a lot of Democratic ads.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.