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Trump’s Approval Rating Is Up. Republican House Chances Are Down. Does That Make Any Sense?

Just in time for the Nov. 6 election, President Trump is posting some of the best job approval numbers of his presidency. His approval rating is currently 43.1 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average, the highest it’s been since March 2017. His disapproval rating is 52.0 percent, so let’s not get too carried away — the president is still unpopular. But his numbers are moving in the right direction.

Republicans have been moving in the wrong direction in our House model, however. The three different versions of our model — Lite, Classic and Deluxe — each show slightly different results, but they all have Republicans at or near their all-time lows. GOP chances of retaining control of the House are down to 14 percent (about 1 chance in 7) in the Classic model, our default version. The Lite version, which is based on polls alone and doesn’t account for factors like fundraising, is slightly less bearish, putting Republican chances at 21 percent (about 2 in 9). But that’s still as low as they’ve been all cycle.

So, what gives?

The Classic and Deluxe versions of our model actually use presidential approval ratings in their calculation. But they’re a relatively minor factor — part of an initial projection the model makes based on historical data to calibrate its forecast early in the cycle. Now that Election Day is almost here, the historical projection plays little role.

That’s because presidential approval ratings have a relatively rough relationship with midterm outcomes. More direct measures of voting preferences for Congress are more reliable. For example, the generic congressional ballot, which shows a Democratic lead of 8.6 percentage points, is bad for Republicans and has been getting (slightly) worse. And the large array of House district polls from Siena College and our friends at The Upshot have reverted back to being quite poor for Republicans after a couple of weeks in early October when they showed more bright spots for the GOP.

Besides that, Republicans are doing about as well — or as badly — as you might expect given the long history of the president’s party performing poorly at the midterms and that Trump is at least somewhat unpopular.

In fact, let’s take Trump entirely out of the equation for a moment. On average in midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has experienced a popular vote swing of 7.3 percentage points against it, relative to how it did in the House popular vote in the presidential year two years earlier. Republicans won the House popular vote by only 1.1 percentage points in 2016, for example, so if you knew nothing else other than that a Republican was president, you’d expect them to lose the popular vote by 6.2 percentage points this year. That’s only 2 or 3 percentage points better than their 8- or 9- point deficit on the generic ballot and in our forecast of the House popular vote this year.1

Nonetheless, Trump remains less popular than average. If it holds to Election Day, Trump’s current net approval rating, -8.9 percentage points, would be the fourth-worst out of 19 midterms since World War II, better only than Harry Truman’s in 1946, George W. Bush’s in 2006 and Barack Obama’s in 2014. (For all presidents, approval ratings are derived from our historical database.)

Presidents suffer in midterms — unpopular ones especially

Net swing in the presidential party’s House popular vote at midterm elections from previous election, 1946-2014

Presidential Party’s Popular Vote Margin in House
Year President pres. Net Approval Rating Prev. elex Midterm Net Swing
1946 Truman -19.0 +4.7 -8.5 -13.2
1950 Truman -2.3 +7.2 +0.7 -6.5
1954 Eisenhower +37.4 -0.5 -5.5 -5.0
1958 Eisenhower +30.0 -2.5 -12.4 -9.9
1962 Kennedy +36.7 +10.0 +5.3 -4.7
1966 Johnson +2.7 +14.7 +2.7 -12.0
1970 Nixon +29.0 -1.7 -8.7 -7.0
1974 Ford +19.8 -5.6 -16.8 -11.2
1978 Carter +13.1 +13.6 +8.9 -4.7
1982 Reagan -6.1 -2.6 -11.8 -9.2
1986 Reagan +34.0 -5.1 -9.9 -4.8
1990 H. W. Bush +18.7 -7.7 -7.8 -0.1
1994 Clinton +3.5 +5.0 -7.1 -12.1
1998 Clinton +33.5 +0.0 -1.1 -1.1
2002 W. Bush +32.7 +0.5 +4.8 +4.3
2006 W. Bush -19.7 +2.6 -8.0 -10.6
2010 Obama -4.3 +10.6 -6.8 -17.4
2014 Obama -11.3 +1.2 -5.7 -6.9
2018 Trump -8.9 +1.1
Average* +12.7 +2.5 -4.9 -7.3

* Excludes 2018

Furthermore, the president’s party tends to do worse in the House popular vote than the president does in his approval rating. On average in midterms since 1946, the president has had a +11.3 percentage point net approval rating as of Election Day, but the president’s party has lost the popular vote for the House by 4.9 percentage points. That gap is partly explained by voters’ tendency to seek a balance of political power even if they like the president — something that may be especially relevant this year because, when voters voted Republican for Congress in 2016, most of them expected Hillary Clinton to be president. Republican candidates for the House won voters who disliked both Clinton and Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016. If, hypothetically, Democrats won that group of voters by 30 percentage points instead this year, they’d win the popular vote by around 10 percentage points, not far from where most generic ballot polls have the race.

There still is some relationship between a president’s approval rating and his party’s midterm performance. But even at Trump’s slightly improved values, it isn’t a relationship that bodes well for the GOP. The data in the chart below, for example, would imply roughly a 10-point popular vote loss for the GOP given Trump’s current approval rating:

Our model performs a slightly-more-sophisticated version of this calculation; for instance, it attempts to estimate Trump’s approval rating among likely voters, which is slightly better than his overall numbers.2 Still, it thinks Republicans “should” lose the popular vote for the U.S. House by about 8.3 percentage points — again, very close to what the generic ballot and other indicators show. And the modest improvement in Trump’s approval rating doesn’t help that much; the calculation would show Republicans losing by 8.8 percentage points if we’d used the Labor Day version of Trump’s approval rating instead of his current one.

The relationship between presidential approval and a party’s performance at the midterms has been stronger in recent elections. In the chart above, for example, the slope of the line would be almost twice as steep — meaning a clearer relationship between presidential approval and the House popular vote — if you’d only calibrated it based on midterm elections since 1994. But again, that isn’t a helpful set of facts for Trump. If we’d used only the most recent data, our model would show a worse projection for Republicans, because Trump is unpopular and unpopular presidents have been punished especially heavily by voters in recent midterms.

In short, while it might seem a bit weird that presidential approval ratings and the generic ballot have moved in opposite directions, the data isn’t that hard to explain. The president’s party usually does poorly at the midterms even with a popular president, and Trump isn’t popular. His numbers are improved, but only marginally. Moreover, the relationship between presidential approval and midterm performance is rough enough that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to move in lockstep. And Republicans aren’t doing any worse (or better) than you’d expect from historical trends. Maybe the Republican outlook in the House would be even worse without the recent uptick in Trump’s approval rating. But that outlook isn’t good, and while Trump is probably still a net liability for the GOP, Republicans have plenty of problems of their own making too.

Footnotes

  1. Granted, they happen to be 2 or 3 highly consequential points: With a 6-point popular vote loss, Republicans would have roughly an even-money shot of keeping the House; at 8 or 9 points, it’s much harder.

  2. At least in general; there are exceptions in some polls.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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