OF PRESIDENTS AND PRECEDENTS
I’m going to throw a Strunk and White (paperback) at the next pundit who uses the term “unprecedented.”
We are a country that has been through federal criminal investigations involving multiple sitting presidents, their families, vice presidents, presidential candidates, Cabinet secretaries, senators, representatives, and at least one Supreme Court justice. It would be right to say that the FBI executing a search warrant at a former president’s home is “unusual” or “remarkable.” I might even turn a blind eye to “historic.” But, yea, verily, there is lots and lots of precedent for criminal investigations of and criminal conduct by America’s powerful people.
Whether the previous investigations were merited usually depended on one’s political affiliations. Republicans called the Iran-Contra probe a “witch hunt” aimed at damaging the reputation of Ronald Reagan and harming the chances of George H.W. Bush in 1988. Democrats said much the same of the many, many probes into the Clinton family over the years.
In many cases, there has been truth to the claims of politically motivated investigations. But not always. In both Iran-Contra and the manifold misdeeds of the Clintons, there was plenty of substance to the underlying investigations. Of course, the same partisans then tended to switch from saying that the target was wrongly accused to saying that the offense was not serious or that the law was being applied in an uneven fashion. Indeed, the papier-mâché martyrdom of the Trumps seems quite akin to that of the Clintons—much like their determined, damaging grips on their parties. Today’s White House interns weren’t even born when Bill Clinton was impeached, and yet he and his wife are still hanging around. Might the Trumps persist in an even denser cloud of scandal, greed, and solipsism for decades to come?
The search of Donald Trump’s Florida home would seem to make that more likely. It certainly has to be the best news for Trump’s 2024 chances so far. The faith of the congregants in his cult of personality will burn brighter with every moment of martyrdom, and any attack on any topic against the exiled leader by any potential rival will hit differently to GOP primary voters as Trump is depicted across right-wing media as battling against these, ahem, unprecedented actions by Sleepy China Joe Biden. Weak! Sad! Treason!
For our purposes, though, what matters most is what’s next: The midterm elections and the battle for control of Congress and state offices, now just about 12 weeks away. The pants-wetting coverage of the search—and the new unity behind Trump—is just the latest in a series of events that have made this the weirdest, wildest midterm cycle in decades.
Forecasters always need to know what kind of electorate we will see in the fall: the size and composition of the turnout. So we go searching for clues. For example, in a special election for a vacant House seat in Minnesota this week, Republicans held on by a similarly narrow margin as they did in 2020 and only slightly better than the squeaker in 2018. It’s a competitive district and the race featured two good, well-funded candidates, so it’s not a bad choice for a bellwether. What Republicans wanted to see is what Democrats saw in special elections in 2018: Big improvements over historical baselines. What the red team got in Minnesota was the status quo, which, based on their surprise showing in 2020, would probably be enough to win back the House (perhaps narrowly) but no encouragement on the Senate side, where the GOP is defending more seats, and more open seats, than Democrats.
That runs counter to most of what we know about midterm elections, which tend to be referenda on the president and his party—especially in first terms like this one. And that is almost invariably bad news for the party in power. Midterms are usually about taking back some of the mandate given in the presidential election two years prior. That’s why we care so much about presidential job approval polls, and why it’s significant that President Biden in our average today has about 38 percent job approval and 57 percent disapproval, which puts him 18 points underwater. But Democrats are still leading in the so-called generic ballot, which asks Americans, regardless of their own state and district, which party they would prefer controlled Congress after the elections.
We are familiar with presidents in the modern era beating the midterm curse. It has happened twice in the 10 such contests since 1982: Clinton the martyr in 1998 and George W. Bush as a wartime leader in 2002. In both cases, a popular president was able to break the curse. But what we haven’t seen in the same period is the Biden phenomenon in which an unpopular president isn’t dragging his party all the way down with him.
So, let’s look at Biden’s modern predecessors at roughly this point in their first midterms. We’re using Gallup numbers for the sake of consistency, but in all cases they line up pretty well with the consensus of the public opinion research community.
1982: Reagan: 41 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove (-8); Generic ballot: D+17
Eventual net seat swing: House D+26, Senate D+1
1990: Bush: 74 percent approve, 16 percent disapprove (+58); Generic ballot: D+2
Eventual net seat swing: House D+7, Senate D+1
1994: Clinton: 43 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove (-5); Generic ballot: R+0
Eventual net seat swing: House R+54, Senate R+8
2002: Bush: 68 percent approve, 26 percent disapprove (+42); Generic ballot: D+8
Eventual net seat swing: House R+8, Senate R+2
2010: Obama: 43 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove (-5); Generic ballot: R+7
Eventual net seat swing: House R+63, Senate R+6
2018: Trump: 39 percent approve, 56 percent disapprove (-17); Generic ballot: D+7
Eventual net seat swing: House D+41, Senate R+2
Reagan, Clinton, Barack Obama, and Trump were all unpopular late in the summer of their first midterm year, and their parties were all suffering a corresponding deficit in the generic ballot. In all four cases, the polls proved predictive and forecast losses in the fall. (We can talk more another time about the significance of the neutral rating in 1994, but take it from me, that was a good omen for the GOP.) But the rules don’t seem to apply to either of the Presidents Bush. Bush the younger was far more popular than his party at the time, as the Republican deficit in the generic ballot shows. It’s pretty obvious that Bush (and some weak Senate candidates for Democrats) made the difference in the end. But what about his dad?
Bush the elder was more popular at this point than any of the other presidents on this list, but still saw his Republicans struggling through the summer on their way to significant, if more modest than most, defeats in the fall. Bush was still riding a wave of popular support after the U.S. successfully rocked Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega’s world, but conservative anger over Bush’s broken “read my lips” tax pledge was cutting into his numbers. They were buoyed again by Saddam Hussein’s August invasion of Kuwait, which Americans agreed was aggression that could not stand, man. But high gas prices, a government shutdown, the savings and loan scandal, and the old rhythms of the midterm curse caught up with him again by Election Day, when the 41st president was treading water right around 50 percent. The delta between Bush and his party was resolved in the opposite way as his son’s would be: Bush came down to their level, rather than bringing them up to his.
So how will Biden’s delta be resolved? Our list doesn’t have an instance of a president so much less popular than his party at this point in a midterm year. The current commander in chief is living the inverse of the Bushes’ experience. Something has got to give.
We live in times at least as eventful as 1990, with our pandemic aftermath, a European land war, the Trump show, wild inflation, and more. It is certainly possible that events will intercede again and either drive Democrats back down to the doldrums where they were suffering earlier this year, or, theoretically, that Biden would be lifted up closer to the 50-yard line by Election Day. Much of Democrats’ success in the generic ballot isn’t real popularity, but rather obvious voter concerns about a very unwell Republican Party still crazed by a bad breakup with its toxic ex. Republicans, again, theoretically, might get their act together and remove the supports under the Dems’ numbers. Or Dems, more likely, will misunderstand the causes of their recently improved performance, become arrogant, and hurt their own standing.
We don’t know how this tension will be resolved by Election Day, but we do know that in a moment we’ve never seen before in modern political history. If only there was a word for that…
Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.
Biden job performance
Average approval: 38.2 percent
Average disapproval: 56.8 percent
Net score: -18.6 points
Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.8 points
Change from one month ago: ↑ 3.6 points
[Average includes: Ipsos/Reuters: 40% approve-55% disapprove; Monmouth University: 38% approve-56% disapprove; Gallup: 38% approve-59% disapprove; Suffolk University/USA Today: 39% approve-56% disapprove; American Research Group: 36% approve-58% disapprove]
Generic congressional ballot
Democrats: 43.8 percent
Republicans: 41.8 percent
Net advantage: Democratic Party +2.0 points
Change from one week ago: No change
Change from one month ago: Republican Party ↑ 1.0 points
[Average includes: Ipsos/Reuters: 35% Democrat, 33% Republican; Monmouth University: 49% Democrat, 46% Republican; Suffolk University/USA Today: 44% Democrat, 40% Republican; Quinnipiac University: 45% Democrat, 44% Republican; SSRS/CNN: 46% Democrat, 46% Republican]
TIME OUT: GRINDING IT OUT
The Atlantic: “In 2000, more than 15 percent of new and used cars sold by the auto retailer CarMax came with stick shifts; by 2020, that figure had dropped to 2.4 percent. Among the hundreds of new car models for sale in the United States this year, only about 30 can be purchased with a manual transmission. Electric cars, which now account for more than 5 percent of car sales, don’t even have gearboxes. … When manual transmissions were the norm, drivers had to touch and manipulate the shifter, in tandem with the clutch, constantly while operating a vehicle. Passengers saw this action taking place, and shifting gears became imbued with meaning. … The manual transmission’s impending disappearance feels foreboding not (just) because shifting a car is fun and sensual, but also because the gearshift is—or was—a powerful cultural symbol of the human body working in unison with the engineered world.”
DeSANTIS HITS THE TRAIL 10
Politico: “Ron DeSantis is taking his growing clout among national Republicans on the road, where he’ll be the main attraction at events for Senate and gubernatorial candidates in key races across the country. … The rallies are being billed by Turning Point Action as a way to help ‘unite’ the Republican Party after a series of brutal and high-profile primary fights that at times pitted Trump’s endorsed candidate with one backed by more establishment Republicans. … Some members of the Republican Party are toying with the idea of creating distance from Trump as the general election begins. There’s been some fatigue setting in among Republican donors across the country, and some party leaders increasingly see DeSantis as a way to create Trump-like energy and policy outcomes in a less divisive way for Republicans — even as his focus on culture war-type fights turns him into one of the most controversial political figures for Democrats.”
Beutler bested, setting up possible Dem gain: Seattle Times: Six-term U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler conceded defeat to Donald Trump-endorsed challenger Joe Kent on Tuesday after new vote totals confirmed she would place third in the primary. The concession was further proof of the political price paid by Republicans who dared to impeach Trump over his role in stoking the January 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Of the 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats in that vote, Herrera Beutler was the seventh to retire or be ousted in a primary. … Kent advanced to the general election despite a flood of attack ads fueled by more than $4 million in outside PAC money aimed at helping the incumbent survive the primary in the face of widespread anger from GOP voters over her impeachment vote. … The race may still be headed for a mandatory recount, though those almost never change the outcome.”
[Ed. note: I’m saying I told you so, but…: “The potential trouble spot for Republicans in Washington looks to me like the neighboring 3rd Congressional District…]
Dems high on hopium: New York Times: “For months, Democrats have discussed their midterm anxieties in near-apocalyptic terms, as voters threatened to take out their anger over high gas prices and soaring inflation on the party in power. But the deal on the broad new legislation, along with signs of a brewing voter revolt over abortion rights, has some Democrats experiencing a flicker of an unfamiliar feeling: hope. … ‘This bill gives Democrats that centerpiece accomplishment,’ said Ali Lapp, the president of House Majority PAC. Whether Democrats can keep the measure in the spotlight is another matter. On Monday evening, former President Donald J. Trump said the F.B.I. had searched his Palm Beach, Fla., home, a significant development that threatened to overshadow the news of the Senate deal and that gave already-energized Republicans a new cause to circle the wagons around Mr. Trump.”
Badger State faces a Senate race between radicals: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Two things are certain about the fall contest between Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. It’s going to be expensive and it’s going to be loaded with negative advertising. There’s a lot on the line — the road for control of the U.S. Senate goes right through Wisconsin. In this cycle, Johnson is the only sitting Republican senator running for re-election in a state that President Joe Biden won in 2020. … ‘This race is going to get nasty on both sides,’ said Jessica Taylor, Senate and Governors Editor for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. The Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up. … There’s little head-to-head polling so far. A Marquette University Law School Poll from June showed Barnes with a 2-point lead over Johnson in a projected fall match-up, well within the survey’s margin of error.”
Poll shows spike in partisans’ mutual contempt: Pew Research Center: “Growing shares in each party now describe those in the other party as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans. Perhaps the most striking change is the extent to which partisans view those in the opposing party as immoral. In 2016, about half of Republicans (47%) and slightly more than a third of Democrats (35%) said those in the other party were a lot or somewhat more immoral than other Americans. Today, 72% of Republicans regard Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats say the same about Republicans. The pattern is similar with other negative partisan stereotypes: 72% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats say people in the opposing party are more dishonest than other Americans. Fewer than half in each party said this six years ago. Large majorities in both parties also describe those in the other party as more closed-minded than other Americans (83% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans say this), and this sentiment also has increased in recent years.”
Dems learn to love ‘Dark Brandon’—Daily Beast
Pitney: ‘Gavin Newsom’s uncanny resemblance to Michael Dukakis’: The Hill
Ilhan Omar barely escapes primary challenge—MinnPost
Republicans hope for a wave big enough to hit New England—Politico
Perennial candidate McMullin tries again in Utah —Politico
WITHIN EARSHOT: ONE IF BY LAND, TWO IF BY SEA
“Mr. Giuliani is not cleared for air travel, A-I-R. John Madden drove all over the country in his big bus, from stadium to stadium. So one thing we need to explore is whether Mr. Giuliani could get here … on a train, on a bus or Uber, or whatever it would be.”—Fulton County, Georgia Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ordering Rudy Giuliani to testify in-person about 2020 election interference in Georgia despite doctors’ orders forbidding the former New York mayor from flying.
“I know I’m not alone in being extremely distressed at the state of the country and discouraged at its future prospects, but I’ll save that for the therapist. In your opinion, what changes will it take to set America back on the right track? And most importantly, what can we, as average citizens far removed from the levers of power, do to affect those changes?”—Bryan Samuelsen, Minneapolis, Minnesota
I am sorry, Mr. Samuelsen, but my answer is the same as the great philosopher Clubber Lang: “Prediction? Pain.” Human nature is to respond to success and prosperity with indolence and dissolution. The same nature, given the right incentives, tends to respond to pain and discomfort with industry and rectitude. What is needed is for people of goodwill and patriotic grace to give up their last idols of the last age and come together in common defense of the Constitution and the American system. I pray that we are closer to the end than the beginning of this process, but we won’t really know when it’s over until we are already out of this extraordinarily cynical and selfish era.
You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the fearless Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!
The winner of this week’s contest harkened back to the kicker from the previous note with a cutline sure to delight arachnophobes everywhere.
“It’s your Constitutional Right to burn a spider. ANY SPIDER. ANY TIME. ANY PLACE. ANYWHERE !”—Barb Taylor, St. George, Utah
Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!
EVITA IL NOID
Washington Post: “Who would have guessed that denizens of Italy, where pizza is an internationally recognized national treasure, wouldn’t have gone crazy for mass-produced, over-the-top American riffs on the country’s national dish offered by a multinational chain? Someone probably should have. Domino’s will no longer be offering its specialty cheeseburger, Hawaiian and bacon-and-chicken-topped pizzas, after the company running the Italian franchises shuttered all of its locations. … The company blamed reduced demand on consumers’ preference for delivery from mom-and-pop shops and for restaurants reopening after pandemic shutdowns. … As word of the closures spread on U.S. social media, people predictably poked fun at the very idea of the chain’s ambitions (Domino’s had reportedly hoped to open as many as 800 locations) in the land where pizza is so revered that an organization exists to protect the traditional Neapolitan style and its twirling preparation won a spot on UNESCO’s ‘intangible heritage’ list.”
[Ed. note: A special word of thanks to Abbey Black, who had the misfortune of arriving as an intern right as the rightly revered Samantha Goldstein was on her way on to the next rung on her career ladder but before the great Nate Moore had begun his toils in the Augean stables of nerddom. Despite being just halfway through college, Abbey rose to the occasion and proved to be a valuable colleague right away: smart, thoughtful, brave, and funny. She’s so good I would often forget that she goes to Ohio State. It’s almost enough to lessen my disdain for Brutus … almost.]
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Abbey Black and Nate Moore contributed to this report.