The 2018 midterm elections loom as a test of a potential new dynamic of Trump-era politics — the possibility of a quiet backlash against the media and popular culture that compensates for slack in the president’s support.
The issue is whether a significant segment of the electorate that now has a low regard for President Donald Trump may nonetheless feel pushed into the GOP camp by the raging war between the president and the dominant culture. It’s a relevant question since Trump won support last year from a surprisingly high number of voters who had a negative view of him.
The evidence that’s available can easily fit a very different reading of the depth and nature of Trump’s backing — one that’s damning for his political standing now and for his party’s 2018 prospects. It may well be that is where the story begins and ends.
But, as I wrote last week, it’s worth recognizing how different politics is right now than ever before: How central Trump and his presidency have become to…everything.
In a way we’ve never seen before with a president, popular culture is now built around Trump, with Americans of all partisan stripes absorbing vast amounts of politically charged content, often from purveyors of culture that weren’t previously political. When you then consider how hostile toward Trump this content tends to be, and how often these messages bleed into broader indictments of the Republican party and conservatism itself, it raises the possibility of a new kind of backlash.
In this way, ’18 makes for a good test.
By traditional standards, Trump and his fellow Republicans are in for a beating.
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There’s a well-established relationship between the approval rating of a president and his party’s performance in midterm elections. And Trump’s rating, of course, is dreadful when measured against his predecessors. In Gallup’s daily tracker, he currently sits at 35 percent — just one point above his low-water mark.
In fact, there’s already evidence of Trump’s low approval rating taking a real toll on Republican candidates. This spring’s special House elections saw Democrats make serious inroads in some very Republican districts.
In a Kansas district around Wichita that Trump carried by 27 points last year, the Republican candidate won by just seven. The GOP margin was also seven points for the at-large House seat in Montana, a state Trump won by 21 points in November. And in South Carolina, a district around Rock Hill that went for Trump by 19 points nearly flipped to the Democrats, with the GOP nominee hanging on there by only three points.
If the slippage that Republicans saw in these districts is replicated across the country in 2018, the GOP will be trounced.
That said, there was one other special congressional election this spring where the result and the nature of the campaign was different in a way that may be significant for 2018.
In Georgia’s Sixth District, just north of Atlanta, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by four points. That was three points better than Trump’s single-point margin in the same district last year. In fact, if you compare it to all the special elections around the country since last November — including more than a dozen for seats in state legislatures — the Georgia result stands nearly alone as the exception to what looks like a building Democratic wave.
What was it that allowed Handel and her party to avoid the erosion that we’ve seen elsewhere? There are a number of possible explanations, but it seems possible that it’s connected to a kind of culture and media backlash.
Consider that Georgia’s Sixth District contains many voters who had a negative opinion of Trump but still voted for him — reluctant Trump voters, as Harry Enten calls them. The district skews heavily toward college-educated white voters, a group that has been especially lukewarm toward Trump, which explains why his margin was more than 20 points lower than Mitt Romney’s in the same district in 2012.
When the seat became vacant earlier this year, Democrats zeroed in on it as a prime pick-up opportunity. Surely, with Trump already struggling as president and Democrats making gains in other special elections, there’d only be more Republican slippage in Georgia’s Sixth.
Indeed, a poll taken a week before the election put Trump’s favorable score in the district at 35 percent. A poll by a Republican firm pegged his approval at 45 percent. The GOP healthcare plan, then in the headlines, was favored by less than a quarter of voters.
In other words, Handel ended up rallying support from voters with a low opinion of Trump — enough to win.
Now consider the atmosphere surrounding the Georgia campaign. More than $50 million was spent on behalf of each candidate, off the charts for a House race. The national press covered the race extensively, especially in its final days. Celebrities took up the Ossoff cause.
The candidates did their best to downplay Trump, but no congressional race had ever received such saturation attention from the media and popular culture. The message was clear: This race was all about Trump — and, maybe, all about the war over Trump that rages nonstop in our culture.
No other special election was set against this kind of backdrop, so it seems significant that it produced a different result from the others. In special elections where there’s been scant media attention, there’s been high Democratic energy without an equal Republican counteroffensive, and Democrats have made gains.
But is it possible that the intense national focus on Georgia’s Sixth — from a media and culture that can be very been harsh toward Trump — created Republican energy that didn’t exist elsewhere? Did it take those Republicans who don’t like Trump and don’t think he’s a good president and give them something to vote against?
There are more questions than answers here, including whether this possible dynamic could be in play nationally in 2018, when 435 races will be decided on the same day. At the moment, with his numbers stuck in the basement, it may be Trump’s best and only hope of bucking history.
Steve Kornacki, author of "The Red and the Blue: 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism," is a national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.