In the wake of what should be a humbling, if not humiliating, loss in the ruby red state of Alabama, Donald Trump has taken to Twitter to calm his supporters and exonerate himself from any blame.
“Remember, Republicans are 5-0 in Congressional Races this year,” he tweeted Monday morning. “The media refuses to mention this. I said Gillespie and Moore would lose (for very different reasons), and they did. I also predicted ‘I’ would win. Republicans will do well in 2018, very well!”
Notice how the “I” is in quotes. Trumpian leadership is about assigning blame elsewhere. The buck stops …there. Apparently. In Trump’s world.
But is it true? First, Trump neglected to mention that Democrats held on to a deep-blue seat in a special election for California’s 34th congressional district earlier this year.
More to the point, I don’t recall Trump predicting that Ed Gillespie would lose the governorship in Virginia—or that Roy Moore would lose the Senate race in Alabama. I’m pretty sure he endorsed both losers in the general election, and that it would have been huge news if the Republican standard bearer had made such a prediction before an election. In fact, the liberal media would have blamed him for the losses.
What Trump did do, however, is retroactively declare that he had predicted their political demise. We have to take his word for this revisionist history, I suppose. But why even point it out? Is the benefit of being considered a terrific prognosticator worth the cost of kicking a man when he’s down? Is being Nate Silver better than being Dale Carnegie? It is if you divide the world into winners and losers, and assume that losers get what they deserve.
But let’s get to the meat of Trump’s tweet. He’s pointing to wins in congressional special elections like Georgia and Montana, while downplaying the statewide losses in Virginia (and, more amazingly) Alabama. Does he have a point?
Yes, and no. In terms of congressional special elections, it’s important to note that gerrymandering—whether that’s in order to help Republicans win or to ensure that a minority-majority district gets representation—has skewed things. Roy Moore managed to lose Alabama, even though he won six of the seven Congressional districts there. So it’s very possible that Republicans salvage a majority, even as they incur the wrath of a Democratic wave election. Some waves are so big, however, that no man-made wall can save you. And make no mistake, a storm is brewing. All you have to do is look at the numbers. And here, Trump’s penchant for tallying up “wins” and “losses” can be very misleading.
Because special elections often take place to fill vacancies of “safe” seats, when evaluating their import, it is better not to look at wins and losses as predictive. Instead, the key metric is turnout—compared to the last presidential election.
For obvious reasons, fewer people tend to vote in special elections than in a general elections, so the raw numbers will almost always decline. But turnout tells you about enthusiasm—an ingredient that matters greatly in midterms. And going back months now, when one looks at the trend (here we see GA-6, SC-5, MT-at-large, and KS-4), a very clear pattern emerges: Republican turnout is much lower than Democratic turnout.
As Nate Cohn observed, “Alabama is only the latest, if most extreme, example of this year’s major turnout patterns, and these shifts pose a big challenge to Republicans in 2018.”
What about the gubernatorial elections taking place the year after a new president is elected? Democrats won in Virginia and New Jersey in 2017. In terms of being predictive of the 2018 midterms, we don’t have to go back too far to see that the 2009 gubernatorial elections (Virginia and New Jersey both elected Republicans) were a harbinger of things to come in the midterms. Again, Trump seems to be engaging in a bit of wishful thinking.
And it’s not just the big elections that matter. This 538 post-Alabama piece includes a shocking data point: “There have been more than 70 special elections for state and federal legislative seats in 2017 so far ...Democrats have outperformed the partisan lean in 74 percent of these races.”
Sometimes a tweet is just a tweet, but I suspect that we are seeing a window into Trump’s soul. And Trump’s failure to grapple with reality could have consequences. A clear-eyed leader would recognize that the train is off the track, and make corrections.
Maybe Trump thinks the tax bill will save the GOP. But no one can assume the tax bill is a political salve. The initial polling is terrible and many people won’t notice the benefits until they fill out their 2018 tax returns in early 2019. In this regard, Trump might have a point. If history is an indicator, and if the economy holds up, “He” has a decent shot of bouncing back and being reelected.
But the part about Republicans doing “very well” in 2018...I’m not so sure.
What we are witnessing here is the work of a blame-shifter, not a leader. Trump doesn’t look like he wants to make any corrections, but why should he care? If the midterms go badly he can just make another excuse. In fact, I’m predicting that we may very well see Trump tweet someday that he predicted Republicans would “lose the House in 2018.” You know, he’s never wrong.