- - Tuesday, August 14, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Democrats are trying their best to spin their razor-thin loss in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District special election as a moral victory that presages a “Blue Wave” in November. The GOP won Ohio by 9 points in 2016, so it shouldn’t have been this close, they say.

But in fact, their failure to win has exposed persistent Democratic weakness in the face of President Trump’s impressive first term record — above all, on the economy.

Steady job growth, a phenomenal 4.1 percent GDP growth rate in the last quarter, increased labor force participation and even long-awaited real wage increases — coupled with middle-class gains from tax-reform, which Democrats boycotted — are forcing Democrats to come up with a compelling midterm message beyond the empty atmospherics of Russia-Gate and Stormy Daniels.

And for Republican candidates, tying their fortunes to Mr. Trump, who is eager to campaign for them, may prove a ticket to victory after all. Mr. Trump went balls to the wall for Troy Balderson in Ohio and the candidate shot over the top. Democrats insist that the president is a down-ticket albatross, but Mr. Trump’s endorsements seem to have made a clear difference in several other close contests as well.

While pundits debate the meaning of Mr. Trump’s favorability rating, which continues to hover around 45 percent, they seem to be paying too little attention to the all-important generic ballot, which is sharply vectoring toward the GOP. Not long ago Democrats enjoyed a sizable double-digit advantage on this metric, which seemed to suggest that the age-old pattern of recently elected presidents suffering major partisan losses in subsequent congressional elections was still intact.

But in recent months Democrats have let their lead slip away. In mid-July it was down to just seven points. The latest polls released last week have the Democratic margin down to low-single digits. IBD/TIPP, considered one of the nation’s most reliable pollsters, even has the two parties tied.

This is very bad news for the Democrats, because the midterms are just three months away. Past elections show that generic ballot trends emerging in the late summer tend to be highly predictive of the fall. The Democrats thought they had landed a solid punch on Mr. Trump thanks to his bold Helsinki summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. But Mr. Trump hasn’t been hurt by this controversy or by the earlier media-hyped family separation scandal on the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, his favorability rating continues to inch upward.

Mr. Trump’s even gaining with demographics where Democrats thought they were rock solid — Hispanics, African-Americans, gays and millennials. The shift may not be seismic, but it doesn’t have to be. In midterm election where lower turnout tends to favor the GOP, even a relatively small across-the-board swing away from the Democrats could prove decisive.

Despite Mr. Trump’s growing popularity, Democrats can’t seem to accept that relying on a simple anti-Trump message — without one of their own — is as counter-productive now as it was during the 2016 campaign. Americans are looking for a pugnacious president that defies establishment thinking. The more Democrats pillory Mr. Trump for being “reckless” and risking “disaster” — and the more events seem to turn his way — the more the country seems to come away impressed.

In fact, it could be that a substantially higher percentage of the country views Mr. Trump more favorably than his current numbers suggest. During the 2016 campaign some pollsters detected a Trump “undercount” of 5-8 points, which was borne out on Election Day. So Mr. Trump may already have surpassed 50 percent favorability overall — with a 60 percent approval rating on the economy — which would place him ahead of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama at a similar point in their respective reigns.

If the past is any guide, the Democrats would need a substantial generic ballot lead of 7 or 8 points and a president with even lower approval ratings than Mr. Trump’s to prevail in November. One liberal outfit, the Brennan Center, has gone so far as to suggest the Democrats need at least an 11-point lead on the generic ballot to win. Brennan blames past Republican gerrymandering of legislative districts for this high hurdle. Even so, the mainstream press has barely reported on this important finding.

Is Mr. Trump exaggerating the possibility of a coming “Red Wave” in November? Perhaps, but Democratic triumphalism — and mainstream Republican defeatism — is no substitute for clear-eyed thinking about current trends, which remain highly favorable overall.

Democrats seem incapable of accepting a bottom-line truth: Mr. Trump, a man they despise and would be willing to topple in a coup, has not only survived — he’s thrived. In the face of the most hostile media offensive against a sitting president since Richard Nixon, he has yet to suffer a single serious knockdown while boastful but deeply divided Democrats, now dominated by Republicans at every level of government, are still trying to figure out how to get off the mat.

• Stewart Lawrence is a Washington writer.

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