Midterm elections are, at their heart, referendums on the president. Recent elections have been extremely negative, with voters expressing their frustration with the top officeholder, usually in the form of the ballot box. No president has faced more pessimistic election predictions than Donald Trump.
This time, the biggest risk to Mr. Trump has not been in the traditional way that midterm voters have punished presidents in recent years. It’s been in what is becoming something of a playbook for the Trump White House and those like it, a very dark way of thinking about how voters will respond to them.
There are numerous examples from the administration, including Mr. Trump’s scorched-earth approach to his travel ban, and the rocky rollout of his “zero tolerance” immigration policy. But it’s a growing phenomenon that has swept across the GOP in recent weeks: using the threat of a government shutdown to try to derail, or damage, vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Republicans acknowledge that their recent behavior on Capitol Hill had been out of touch with most voters. “To the outside world, we seemed crazy as hell,” one Republican close to the White House said. “To the America that voted for us, we seemed crazy as hell.”
Of course, if Republicans are going to lose badly, they’ll probably do it in the shutdown-or-bust years, which could be an apt way to describe the behavior of some in the GOP. The wild-eyed arguments of Washington’s grandstanding duo, President Trump and Mitch McConnell, are yet another sign that it has happened: elections are much more dangerous these days, the stakes much higher.
Whatever the outcome of midterm elections, Mr. Trump is now in uncharted territory as his allies look to sway a hostile electorate. He entered office with low approval ratings but in recent months has seen them steadily rise. His approval ratings have already reached 50 percent, and they could move well past that mark if he wins majorities in Congress.
Expect to see him spend a good chunk of the next two years — and beyond — twisting more about how the electorate is supposed to view him.