'Trump effect' big factor in US midterm elections

Controversies involving Trump, his low approval ratings not helping Republicans retain seats

WASHINGTON • The booming US economy is little help to Republicans trying to hold on to seats in Congress and the main reason is President Donald Trump.

Mr Trump's Twitter feuds and controversies have overpowered the Grand Old Party's economic message, and his persistently low approval ratings may dash any Republican hopes of bucking history by avoiding the loss of House of Representatives seats in the midterm elections less than three weeks away.

"Theoretically, the economy should take some of the edge off Democratic gains," said Mr David Wasserman, an analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "The problem for Republicans is President Trump, who frequently dominates the headlines with non-economic news."

Economic growth surged to 4.2 per cent in the second quarter, the fastest since 2014, and is projected to come in above 3 per cent for the July-September period, driven by consumer spending and business investment that has been juiced by Republican tax cuts. The labour market is tight, with steady hiring and the unemployment rate at 3.7 per cent, the lowest since December 1969.

Still, polls and fundraising, as well as forecasts by Mr Wasserman and other independent analysts, suggest that Democrats are poised to make significant gains on Nov 6 that may give them a majority in the House.

Republicans retain an advantage in the Senate as Democrats have to defend 26 of the 35 seats on the ballot in 2018, including 10 in states where Mr Trump won in 2016.

Mr Mickey Levy, chief US and Asia economist at Berenberg Capital Markets in New York, said: "These elections will be influenced - maybe dominated - by the 'Trump effect'."

A president's approval rating historically is an important factor in midterm elections, and Mr Trump's has never been above 50 per cent in Gallup's tracking poll since his inauguration. It stood at 44 per cent this week, up from 38 per cent a month ago but still within the narrow range where it has been stuck throughout his term.

 
 
 

Presidents with Gallup job approval ratings below 50 per cent have seen their party lose an average of 37 House seats in midterm elections since 1946, more than the 23 seats that Democrats need to regain the House.

Republican officials have acknowledged the Trump effect in plotting their campaign strategy.

"For the most part, this election isn't about the condition of the economy, the number of jobs that have been created, the trade deals or negotiations with foreign countries," according to an internal analysis commissioned by the Republican National Committee. "Rather, the research indicates the determining factor in this election is how voters feel about President Trump."

To the extent that Democrats have been campaigning on the economy it has been by emphasising slow wage growth, inequality and access to health insurance.

Wages have been slow to pick up and inflation is eating into worker pay. Data shows the rich-poor divide remains a challenge.

For many, the American dream of becoming a homeowner remains a distant one as house price gains are outpacing wages. Mortgage rates, meanwhile, are at a seven-year high, putting home purchases further out of reach for young people and those entering the market for the first time.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2018, with the headline ''Trump effect' big factor in US midterm elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe