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Horowitz: Voter Intensity Gap Favors Dems This Time

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


President Trump’s dismal approval ratings-the worst of any modern president at this time in their presidency-are certainly a good sign for Democrats as people begin to look towards the November mid-term elections.  But even better for Democrats and more worrying for Republicans is the pronounced and now established intensity gap. For example, in the recent Suffolk/USA Today poll, 39% strongly disapprove of President Trump, while only 16% strongly approve of him.

Since turn-out is significantly lower in mid-term elections than in presidential elections, the intensity of feeling of individual voters matters more. Simply put, it takes more motivation for a certain sub-set of voters to come out in the mid-terms than in presidential years when a larger percentage of the electorate routinely cast their ballots.  As a result, the fact that more than twice as many people strongly disapprove of the president than approve him is  likely to be of more electoral consequence than the fact that more than 6-in-10 people disapprove of his job performance, while less than 4-in-10 approve.

There is certainly time between now and November for perceptions of President Trump to improve. But his approval ratings are likely to be less influenced by traditionally important factors like the continued strength of the economy or passing key legislation than the approval ratings of his predecessors.

This is because negative perceptions of President Trump are driven less by his specific issue positions and more by the fact an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of his behavior, distrust him and do not believe he has demonstrated that he is fit to hold the office.   And close to a majority of Americans strongly believe he fails these critical character and temperament tests.

These kinds of fundamental assessments cannot be easily altered by policy wins.  It will take a real and sustained change in the president’s behavior—of which so far there is no evidence that he is going to attempt, much less succeed in doing.

Perhaps Trump’s biggest problem is the well-earned perception that he is dishonest.  The New Suffolk/USA Today Poll hints at the difficulty Trump has created for himself.  When asked about the Russia Investigation, 57% of Americans have little or no trust in Trump’s denial of collusion, while only 28% have little or no trust in Special Counsel Bob Mueller.  Despite President Trump and his allies’ best efforts to discredit Mueller, in a credibility contest with the president, Mueller wins hands down.

There is plenty of time before November and much can change. And the Republicans have a fairly large structural advantage, including that the composition of the electorate in mid-term elections is usually disproportionately older and older voters tilt Republican. But as we have seen in the special elections to date and the 2017 Virginia and New Jersey Governor’s races,  the strong desire to send a message to Donald Trump is a powerful motivating force—one that just might carry the day..


Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates.. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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