President Trump has been in office for three months, and Michiganders aren’t exactly basking in the glow of all the “winning” he promised he’d deliver.
The Republican won Michigan last fall by a plurality of roughly 10,000 votes. By February — in what’s supposed to be the post-inauguration honeymoon period — 56 percent of Michigan voters in an EPIC-MRA poll disapproved of his job performance.
Trump’s popularity was underwater, as well, with 51 percent viewing him unfavorably. (In contrast, his predecessor, Barack Obama, enjoyed 59 percent favorability in the survey). And 55 percent already didn’t believe Trump would end up being a good president, with 41 percent saying he’ll be a poor one.
And Trump is taking the GOP down with him, with the party’s numbers sinking rapidly. You can already see warning signs for Republicans in 2018 with how they’re fighting like crazy to keep safe red congressional seats in Kansas and Georgia special elections.
Michigan Democrats should smell blood in the water. This would seem to be the time to go on offense against an unpopular president and try to tie local Republicans to him every chance they get.
Republicans have controlled every branch of government in Michigan for the last six years and have done a skillful job gerrymandering congressional and legislative districts to make it easier to stay in power. Democrats are facing enormous odds in 2018 and need a strong message and target. Trump appears ready to make their job a lot easier.
But it seems that a lot of folks aren’t sure what to do. Many Democratic politicians, especially those representing areas Trump won, don’t want to talk about him much, despite his slipping poll numbers.
You’d expect a full-on assault against “Trumpcare,” given the GOP’s shockingly unpopular health care plans. Republicans started hammering the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare” long before the bill was even written. And they were relentless in their attacks, which paid off big-time in the 2010, 2014 and 2016 congressional elections.
Obamacare never polled particularly well, although now it’s on the upswing, as people fear their coverage will be snatched away. But from a political standpoint, you have to give Republicans credit for their doggedness in attacking the ACA (facts often be damned), which certainly drove its unpopularity up.
Even today, Republicans aren’t afraid to champion issues that poll terribly, like being against background checks for gun purchases and backing tax cuts for the rich. It helps that their most passionate supporters have their back.
But the fact that they’re willing to stand up for certain ideas, even those that are unpopular, helps them portray themselves as principled, strong leaders. Those are very appealing qualities to swing voters, who vote on emotion and personality far more than issues.
Many Democrats rarely stick their necks out on issues that are closely divided or underwater in the polls. That’s why it took so long for the party to come around on same-sex marriage. That’s why Michigan Democrats barely campaigned on Right to Work during the 2014 election, even though the GOP power grab had inspired thousands to show up for last-minute protests in the dead of winter.
Stressing policies that are popular may seem like smart messaging. But you also forfeit the chance to convince people you’re right on the issues, like the GOP did with their relentless campaign against Obamacare.
And it reinforces the idea that Democrats aren’t willing to stick to their guns. That’s not helpful for independents and it’s demoralizing for the base.
It’s one reason why Bernie Sanders, whose far-left ideas will probably always put him outside the political mainstream, inspired such a devoted following. He seemed principled. He seemed like the real deal, someone who would never sell out what he believed in. Never underestimate how appealing that is for voters.
There’s also been some muddled messaging from Dems about working with Trump on some potential areas of agreement, like on trade and infrastructure. Of course, that’s a great way to disillusion your Resistance-loving, Women’s March-going base, which regards the president as the anti-Christ. And those are the passionate folks you’re going to need to turn the state blue — or at least purple — in ‘18.
At this point in his first term, Obama was immensely popular and viewed as a transformational figure as the first African-American president. That didn’t stop Republicans from trying to block everything he did, from the stimulus to the ACA. And they embraced their far-right base, the nascent Tea Party, which fueled the angry backlash to Obama in the ‘10 midterm elections.
That would seem to be a pretty decent blueprint for Democrats heading into ‘18. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine that strategy making things any worse for the party than they are right now.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.