- - Tuesday, October 9, 2018


Democrats, beware: With a month to go, President Trump is closing. He is already in far better position than President Obama was eight years ago. Projections of a Republican midterm slaughter, prevailing virtually since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, are quickly losing credibility.

Mr. Trump is riding two big recent wins. Saturday, despite everything liberals could think to throw at Brett Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump got his second nominee in two years confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, seemingly assuring its conservative bent for some time. Just a week earlier, he completed a renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada — refuting critics and the agreement passed under Bill Clinton, fulfilling a promise Mr. Obama made and Hillary seconded.

Apparently, this policy momentum is fueling Mr. Trump’s political rise, too. According to Rasmussen’s Oct. 8, tracking poll, the president’s job approval/disapproval rating was 51 percent to 47 percent. That is his largest positive margin in 19 months. Considering Mr. Trump only won 46 percent of 2016’s popular vote — that is a 5 percent improvement, and 3 percent above even Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent.

On Oct. 8, 2010, Mr. Obama had a 47/52 percent approval/disapproval rating. Even more telling is a look inside the two presidents’ “strong” job approval ratings, which measure pro and con feelings’ intensity.

The standard perception is that Mr. Trump is doomed by heavy liberal animosity. Instead, he had a 38/38 percent strong score. In comparison to Mr. Trump’s tie, Mr. Obama’s was -12 percent on the same date in 2010 (29/41 percent).

Nor are these figures outliers. Other important measures show a similar Trump advantage relative to Mr. Obama. In Rasmussen’s poll of Oct. 1 measuring the public’s perception of the country’s direction, 40 percent rated it on the right track vs. 54 percent on the wrong track. While that 14 percent looks bad in isolation, consider: At a similar point in 2010, Mr. Obama’s was 31/63 percent — twice as bad as Mr. Trump’s now.

These numbers appear to be benefiting Republicans, too. According to Rasmussen’s latest generic ballot survey, released Oct. 3, Democrats lead Republicans 47 percent to 42 percent. As Rasmussen pointed out in its data release: “At this time in 2014 the last non-presidential election year congressional elections, Democrats held a 40 percent to 39 percent lead.” However, Republicans won the Senate by gaining nine seats that year and picking up 13 House seats.

The upshot is clear: Democrats need big leads to win big gains. So far, the numbers aren’t that big and they are shrinking.

Even more to the point: Republicans are not where Democrats were when they took a severe 2010 midterm beating under Mr. Obama. That year, Democrats lost 63 House seats and the House, and six Senate seats. Having lived it, it is understandable Democrats expected its repeat, when the shoe appeared to be on Republicans’ foot in 2018.

At one point, the numbers validated Democrats‘ optimism. No more. The numbers have changed, but the headlines of Republican doom have not caught up yet.

This is not to say Mr. Trump and Republicans will not lose congressional seats. Since 1936, the sitting president’s party has averaged losing 24 House and three Senate seats in midterms.

However, the cataclysmic losses Democrats experienced under Mr. Obama, and they had hoped and predicted Republicans would suffer under Trump in 2018, are not presaged by today’s numbers.

Of course, a month is still a long time. Things could change. Yet Democrats need not take comfort in this either. Things could also get worse for them.

President Trump and Republicans appear to have momentum now. Congress is effectively out of session, so the president has the bully pulpit to himself. He also has a personally unparalleled ability to make news — and in contrast to past missteps, his current news has been positive. Further, turning the administration’s sights on China — as Vice President Mike Pence did last week — is a guaranteed applause line in most of America.

As November’s midterms loom larger, Democrats may not be looking as forward to them as they once were. And they would do well to look in the rearview mirror too — and heed its warning: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”

• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

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