In the run-up to the attempted Newsom recall, the Democrats turned up the anti-Trump rhetoric, threatening California voters with the prospect of a Trump clone as governor in a state where Trump lost by nearly 30 points in 2016 and 2020. While California is most certainly not a preview of 2022 election results, it is definitely a preview of Democratic tactics: Use fear of Trump to drive turnout.
Political scientists think everyone should vote and scold anyone who doesn’t. Economists think voting makes little sense — at least from a “profit-maximizing” view. Economists are right. Voting is costly and the likelihood a single vote will be the difference is almost nil. And Americans’ turnout decisions are backwards. Your vote in a local election or a party primary is far more influential on the margin than a vote in presidential elections. Yet, people turn out in presidential years and not in local elections and primaries. People turn out for emotional reasons and social acceptance.
So, what increases voter turnout? Fear and anger.
Same-day registration, ease of access, and voter ID restrictions just nibble at the margins. If people want to vote, they’ll vote — if they don’t, they don’t. Turnout rises and falls with economic and political turmoil. More turmoil means more fear and anger and thus higher turnout. With a pandemic, economic problems and rage against Trump, turnout soared in 2020.
To excite their base, the Democrats have one option: Run against Trump. Trump continues to unite a fractious Democratic voter base. Not only Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomDemocrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms Republicans caught in California's recall trap Two of Newsom's four children test positive for COVID-19 MORE, but also Terry McAuliffe (Democratic candidate for Virginia governor) have equated their opponents with Trump.
As has been the case for the past few years, Democratic voters disapprove of Trump more than Republicans approve of him. Trump’s favorable-unfavorable rating among Democrats in the most recent YouGov poll is underwater 9 percent to 88 percent. Republicans approve of him 81 percent to 18 percent. No other politician elicits such negativity. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) is close, underwater with Republicans 9 percent to 86 percent, and the party has long used her as a stalking horse for conservative turnout. Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE (R-Ky.) checks in close behind as a bogeyman for Democrats with an 11 percent favorable to 73 percent unfavorable rating — but villainizing McConnell has not resulted in much for the Democrats, except wasting money on a losing Senate race.
Compounding the Democrats’ turnout problem is a fall-off in Biden’s approval on specific issues. As expected, Biden gets high marks from fellow Democrats, but there is a noticeable drop-off in several polling questions. For the “right track/wrong track” question, 52 percent of Democrats consider the country on the “right track” — 31 percent don’t. While Biden gets high marks for his vaccine mandate, his approval numbers among Democrats on the top issues of handling the economy (79 percent approve) and health care (76 percent approve) are lower than his over approval from Democrats (83 percent).
Polling is just part of a larger enthusiasm problem for Democrats. Biden won the Democratic nomination because the alternative was Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Democrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' MORE, suspected by the Democratic electorate as being too radical to beat Trump. And then for the general election, Biden wasn’t Trump.
As a President defined by who he is not, there is little to rally around.
Biden’s own administration is a policy patchwork, bouncing from placating the progressives to pacifying the moderates, fully satisfying neither.
The clear prescription for these troubles is Trump.
Not only do Democrats and progressives detest Trump, they detest everything associated with him. That emotion may be just the ticket to mitigate losses in 2022. In the previous mid-term routs of 1994 and 2010, Republicans did not have such an effective bogeyman to scare Democrats.
Fortunately for Biden and the Democrats, Trump’s hunger for the spotlight will make their job much easier. If anyone was under the delusion that Trump would gain some personal and political discipline in the wake of leaving the White House, that thought is certainly gone. Trump continues to grab for attention at any opportunity. His candidate endorsements for the 2022 races put a target on the back of every recipient. In addition, his impulsiveness risks putting forward poor-quality candidates in primaries where an open competition would produce the strongest nominees.
If Democrats can bump up turnout enough that independents become the swing voters, Republicans could be in for a less successful election night. Since he lost, Trump’s net unfavorable ratings with independents have gone up and remained high. He currently sits at 40 percent approval to 56 percent disapproval among independents.
Democrats are almost certain to lose control of the House in 2022. Shifts from re-apportionment and the practically unbroken history of the incumbent president’s party losing ground are too tough a combination to beat. However, they might hang on in the Senate. Both parties are on a razor’s edge. But for Republicans, the 2010 midterms are a cautionary tale. Even with the political wind at their backs, Republicans failed to gain the Senate majority after nominating atrocious candidates in Nevada and Delaware.
In the end, both parties are counting on the other to advance their electoral fortunes. Republicans are counting on Democrats moving far to the left of the electorate and more Afghanistan-style fumbling by Biden. Democrats are counting on the ever-unpredictable Trump. For both sides, their enemies are not the problem, it’s their friend that will be costly.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.