As we head to the mid-terms, what about the economy?

There isn’t a lot of economic news out today, so let me focus today’s piece a bit on the economic and social messaging ahead of the US midterm elections.

What about the economy?

I was in the car just now, listening to the radio, when a political ad came on. It was a negative ad about Virginia’s 7th Congressional District Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger, whose name I actually didn’t recognize. But the ad told me she was a socialist who would vote for sanctuary cities, tax hikes and veto power for Nancy Pelosi. After almost 30 seconds of anti-Spanberger gloom, only at the end did I hear the name Dave Brat for whom the ad was an endorsement. That’s a name I recognized as he won a hotly contested congressional race in 2016.

None of this ad resonated with me. In fact, I found it so over the top that I was repulsed. I wondered whether the ad could be effective in Virginia at all, because that’s where it was playing on the radio. The ad got me to thinking about an article I read on Axios, that quoted conservative columnist Bret Stephens. Here’s the part that resonated with me:

Imagine if Trump had done the unthinkable — chucked the fear and loathing bit and crusaded across the country thundering about promises made, promises kept and an American economy on fire.

Imagine if his speeches echoed the top of this column by the NY Times’ Bret Stephens:

  • “The night Donald Trump was elected was supposed to be, for most liberals and a few conservatives, the beginning of the end of the world. The economy would surely implode. The U.S. would probably blunder into a catastrophic war. The new American president would be blackmailed into conducting foreign policy as Putin’s poodle.”
  • “None of that has happened — not yet, at any rate. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported the fastest rate of annual wage hikes in almost a decade, depriving Democrats of one of their few strong arguments about the true state of the economy. Unemployment is at its lowest rate since Vince Lombardi coached his last game in December 1969. The North American Free Trade Agreement has been saved with minor modifications and a new name.”
  • “Oh, and: The Islamic State is largely defeated. Tehran has not restarted its nuclear programs despite America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. U.S. sanctions on Russia are still in place. Democrats badly damaged their chances of taking the Senate with their over-reaching and polarizing crusade to stop Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.”

Instead, it’s caravans (“Four others … are forming,” he warned yesterday), enemies of the people, Pocahontas, fake news, plagues and diseases.

  • And it’s contagious: GOP officials and candidates around the country “have concluded that their best shot at victory is embracing the Trump political playbook of demonization” — including the caravans, now playing in an attack ad near you, the NY Times’ Jeremy Peters reports.

I’ve been writing about how well the economy has been doing. But I have also recognized that Trump sees ‘divide and conquer’ as key to his success. For example, see my piece on “Trump the successful cultural warrior“.

But, will that work for Republican congressional and Senate candidates too? I have my doubts. And my gut reaction to the Brat ad tells me why. Maybe they should be talking up the economy. I get that the tax cuts are still unpopular. But, the economy is doing well. Isn’t that something to warrant highlighting?

What about the polls

A lot of people talk about 2018 like it’s going to be a repeat of 2016, with polls missing things by a wide margin. My sense is that 2016 is not a good reference point for what’s happening today. 2017 in Virginia’s governor’s race is a much better precedent. Here’s why:

Coming into Virginia’s state elections last November, it looked like Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie was cutting into Democrat Ralph Northam’s lead. Gillespie, whose track record was distinctly moderate, had edged out a hard-right candidate in the Republican primary and was embracing President Trump’s rhetoric on crime and immigration in an effort to make up the difference in his race.

As Nov. 7 approached, the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the state showed Northam’s lead sliding from seven points to around three points. Election Day seemed like it might be a jump ball.

Northam polls.png

It wasn’t. It was a blowout. The final polling average figured Northam would win by about three points; he won by nearly nine. He won, in fact, by a wider margin than the average of polls had ever indicated…

The most accurate result came from the likely-vote pool that emphasized self-identified certainty to vote. Put another way: the pool that emphasized enthusiasm…

It all comes down to turnout, as they say. It’s a throwaway motto that candidates use to boost their turnout efforts and that the media uses to acknowledge the uncertainty in election predictions.

It’s also a motto that probably gives a lot of pollsters nightmares.

My sense is that the full court press on immigration – to the point of nakedly bigoted advertisements by Trump himself – is going to backfire. I could be wrong. But I believe this will rally the anti-Trump vote a lot more than the Trump vote. And the Republican losses will be greater than expected.

Final thoughts

The thing is, personally, I find some of the broader strokes of the immigration messaging resonating with me. I don’t want ‘open borders’. I want to discourage people from entering the US illegally. A friend of mine constantly reminds me of his view that the key to dealing with undocumented migrants is by cracking down on the employers that hire them. He tells me that making the e-verify system robust is the key then.

Moreover, I believe the average US voter wonders why a caravan of migrants from Central America traverses thousands of miles through Mexico to reach the US in the same way the average German voter wonders why migrants traversed thousands of miles over the Balkan route to reach Germany in 2015.

But the messaging by Trump and many Republicans is extremist and fear-based. And in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, I think it’s incredibly tone-deaf. More and more, I am seeing evidence that the President’s messaging is coming from far-right groups, who have figured out how to push their agenda into the mainstream.

I don’t think it would be wrong if I called Trump a racist. There’s enough evidence now to support that claim. However you look at it, he is normalizing the messaging of extremist and far-right views in a way that makes a lot of people – including myself – uneasy. And so, with such coarse and ugly messaging flooding the airwaves, that is going to energize the anti-Trump vote in ways the polls haven’t predicted.

My view: Trump will certainly face a Democratic House of Representatives. I believe – despite polls saying otherwise – he is also likely to face a Democratic Senate as well. Record turnout by women and millennials tells me.

Let’s see what happens. But if I’m right, the political calculus by all sides will change dramatically on Wednesday morning.

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