As we enter a two-year presidential cycle, the parties stand at very different places. Republicans appear unified behind President Donald Trump, while Democrats are about to begin a contest for a 2020 nominee that will inevitably degenerate into Democrats attacking Democrats.
But while the GOP is unified, the party just suffered a stunning rebuke and has painted itself into an unenviable demographic corner. Its leader ends 2018 with a trainload of political baggage and is seemingly uninterested in expanding a political coalition that lost 40 House seats and half a dozen governorships.
The one thing that both parties have in common is voters’ skepticism.
According to November’s exit poll, 48 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, while an almost equal 47 percent had an unfavorable view. On the other hand, only 44 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the GOP, while 52 percent had an unfavorable view.
In other words, both parties have plenty of work to do next year, but Republicans start with a bigger job.
In addition to the party’s poor image, Republicans begin with an unpopular president. About 45 percent of voters approved of Trump’s job performance according to the 2018 exit poll, not much different from the 44.9 percent of midterm voters who voted Republican for the House last month.
And those two numbers aren’t dramatically different from the 46.1 percent of the popular vote that Trump drew in the 2016 presidential election.
The good news for Republicans is that Trump’s presidential style, rhetoric and issue positions have energized rural voters, evangelicals and many conservatives, all of whom make up the core of the GOP.
The bad news is that same style and agenda also have turned off minorities, liberals, younger voters and women, including crucial suburban swing voters.
This polarization is a problem for Republicans because in any dispute between the parties, or between the White House and the Democratic House, Democrats will begin with at least a slight advantage.
The 45 percent of Trump voters will almost automatically line up behind the president’s position (or the GOP’s), while most of the rest of the nation will line up against Trump.
Of course, Trump will continue to have the White House megaphone for the next two years, which should give him an advantage in dictating the political narrative over the next few months and into the summer of 2020.
And while likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be popular in her caucus, her national poll numbers are poor, making her an ineffective national spokesperson for her party.
Moreover, the Democratic presidential race should give Trump an opportunity to paint his opposition in the least favorable light, something he has done effectively in the past.
The issue mix for next year seems to favor Democrats, according to a Nov. 7-13 Pew Research Center survey. That poll found respondents preferring congressional Democrats to Trump by a wide margin in their approaches to the environment, ethics in government, Medicare, health care and Social Security - and by a smaller but still clear margin on foreign policy, immigration and gun policy.
Trump’s only clear advantage in the national survey was on jobs and economic growth - an advantage that would quickly disappear if the economy slows noticeably, as some economists expect.
November’s exit poll found that health care was the top issue by far for voters, and House Democrats ought to be able to use that issue throughout 2019 to put Republicans on the defensive.
The same goes for infrastructure spending, gun control and criminal justice reform, which House Democrats can champion to demonstrate that they want to improve people’s lives, not merely obstruct Republican initiatives.
Given the president’s mediocre job approval numbers, his party’s image and his tendency for the controversial and inaccurate, Democrats start 2019 better positioned than the GOP. And that doesn’t include any possible fallout from the Mueller investigation or from an economic slowdown.
Perhaps the biggest danger for Republicans is that another 24 months of Donald Trump in the White House will produce more chaos and controversy, making a majority of Americans so tired of the turmoil and tumult that they will turn to any reasonable alternative who promises calm.
Heading into 2019, Trump remains a bigger than life figure, an entertainer as much as a political leader. The early signs suggest that his fans remain loyal, but the rest of the audience has grown tired of his routine. And that is a problem for the Republican Party both as the next Congress begins and as the presidential race heats up.
Stuart Rothenberg wrote this piece for CQ-Roll Call.