Since modern polling began, no president has been as unpopular at this point in his first term as Donald Trump is today. So should Republicans worry that Trump will hurt their prospects of keeping control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections? In a word, “yes” — if Trump remains as unpopular on Election Day 2018 as he is now.
It might seem like Republican congressional candidates should be able to escape Trump’s unpopularity. Trump, after all, was the least liked major-party presidential candidate on record. Yet Republicans in 2016 won the national House vote by a percentage point and took 241 out of the chamber’s 435 seats for a net loss of only six seats. And even though Trump is historically unpopular as a president, he was even more unpopular as a candidate: Trump’s current disapproval rating in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate is 56 percent, while 2016 general election exit polls put his unfavorable rating at 60 percent. No wonder some Republican House members might be reluctant to distance themselves from Trump, no matter how unpopular he might appear in polls.
That logic, however, misses a key distinction: Midterm elections are different from those that take place in presidential election years. And midterm elections that take place with an unpopular president in office are very different from presidential election years that have two historically unpopular candidates at the top of the major-party tickets.
Republican congressional candidates in 2016 may not have gotten much help from Trump, but they got a big boost from someone else: Hillary Clinton. Clinton, it’s easy to forget, was only modestly more popular than Trump. According to Gallup, Clinton had the second-worst unfavorable rating of any major-party presidential candidate in modern history, behind only Trump. In the 2016 exit polls, 55 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Clinton.