By Susan Milligan
In the Democrats’ uphill struggle to retain control of Congress, Donald Trump and his MAGA movement may be their best friends.
Polling by Priorities USA, a Democratic SuperPAC, found that Democrats would lose narrowly to Republicans among targeted voters when people were simply asked if they wanted a Democrat or a Republican in office. On that generic ballot question, Republicans got 44% of the surveyed – which include battleground state persuadable voters and those who are at least somewhat unmotivated to vote this fall – while Democrats got 41% support. That small difference could be pivotal in Senate and gubernatorial races in those states.
But when Trump and his Make America Great Again agenda are brought into the picture, it brightens for Democrats, the polling found. When those polled were asked to choose between a Democrat who supports President Joe Biden and a Republican who supports the MAGA movement, 37% chose the Democrat and 30% picked the Republican.
The divide was even bigger when it got more personal: Asked if they’d prefer a Democrat who supports Biden or a Republican who supports Trump, those polled preferred the Democrat to the Republican, 41% to 31%. On that question, the hypothetical Democrat got 11% of GOP voters who picked the Republican in the generic ballot question and 32% of third-party voters who initially went with the GOP contender.
The survey is based on very circumscribed voters, including “persuasion voters” – basically swing voters – in the battleground states of Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as “mobilization” voters, people who are inclined to vote Democratic but whose disinterest or dispiritedness make them less likely to show up at the polls this fall. That group was surveyed in the six battlegrounds as well as Colorado, Florida and North Carolina.
But it also shows Democrats what they need to do to hang onto critical Senate seats, gubernatorial posts and some House seats this fall, Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil told reporters in a conference call.
“What Trump and MAGA are doing is producing cross-pressure for these persuadable voters,” Cecil said. “They’re frustrated” about the state of the country, but “they’re not terribly happy about voting for Trump or a MAGA candidate,” he said. “Drawing on that contrast is a necessity if we’re going to be successful.”
The polling also found that the voters surveyed “react to Republican extremism both in style and substance” – whether it’s rhetoric about the Jan. 6 insurrection or a GOP campaign memo threatening Social Security – and can be pulled to the Democratic side and out to the polls if the party works hard to communicate that message, he said.
Biden has already embraced the approach. A few weeks ago, the president – who tended to avoid directly criticizing Republican members of Congress whose votes he needed on legislation – started slamming the party as the “ultra-MAGA Republicans.” He and his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, repeatedly use the term. Republican leadership, meanwhile, has gleefully adopted the “ultra MAGA” moniker in fundraising appeals to the base.
Midterms tend to be hard on the party in power, with the sitting president’s party almost always losing seats in Congress in the midterm. They also are often seen as a referendum on the incumbent president – a bad omen for Biden, whose approval ratings hover around 41% favorable.
A big asset for Biden in 2020 was Trump, Cecil said, echoing the analysis of other political operatives. Instead of being a movement candidate, Biden for many voters served as the electoral antidote to an exhausting four years of scandal, insults and legal battles involving Trump.
That’s hard to translate to a midterm election, since Trump is not on the ballot. But by casting the GOP as a whole as the party of MAGA and Trump can help Democrats persuade and motivate voters, Cecil said.
It’s a tall order, since polling shows that even devoted elements of the Democratic base are discouraged and souring on Biden. About 90% of Black voters cast ballots for Biden in 2020, but a recent Washington Post poll found that just a smaller number – 70% – approve of his job performance, and 60% think he is keeping his campaign promises.
It’s not that Black voters will flip to the GOP – but they might stay home, depriving Democrats of the critical margins they need to hang onto Senate control and some governorships.
The Priorities USA poll, for example, found that 1 in 5 “mobilization” voters – those not motivated to turn out – think 2022 isn’t as important as 2020. Fourteen percent think “it makes no difference who is in power” or that “all politicians are the same.”
Democrats also need to be cognizant of what voters care about when choosing a candidate, Cecil said. While Democrats talk a lot about liberal domestic policy matters, it’s economic issues that are at the top of swing voters’ concerns, he said. The polling, however, was conducted before a series of mass shootings that vaulted the issue of gun control back to the top of the political agenda.
Other polling bears that out: A Suffolk University/Cincinnati Enquirer poll released Tuesday found that while a majority of midterm voters in Ohio want to protect a woman’s right to an abortion, fewer than 1 in 4 four voters said it was a key issue determining their votes.
Voters looking at Ohio’s key Senate race, between Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and GOP nominee/Trump follower J.D. Vance, ranked the economy (23%) and inflation (20%) as their top concerns. Protecting abortion rights (11%) ranked third.
“Democrats talk to their base about criminal justice, choice, immigration and LGBTQ issues,” Cecil said. That’s important, he said, but “they do that at the exclusion of talking about economic issues. If it’s not being effectively communicated, it’s our fault – it’s the Democratic Party’s fault, and no one else’s,” he said.